If you need a giggle, try Xinhua

Official government news agencies are not famous for their whimsy, particularly those whose mission is to convey all the warmth and humanity of a dictatorial regime.  Yet China’s Xinhua agency delivered the goods when it reported that Jeff Bezos had purchased The Washington Post by mistake and was having trouble cancelling the transaction!

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reports that Xinhua came across this Andy Borowitz piece in The New Yorker and republished it as fact: Amazon founder Bezos inadvertently clicked on the Post’s website and ended up making a purchase, and customer service wasn’t being too helpful in straightening out the mistake.

Mr. Bezos said he had been on the phone with the Post’s customer service for the better part of the day trying to unwind his mistaken purchase, but so far “they’ve really been giving me the runaround.”

According to Mr. Bezos, “I keep telling them, I don’t know how it got in my cart. I don’t want it. It’s like they’re making it impossible to return it.”

Xinhua does not have an American sense of humor, clearly; it apparently does not have an American sense of plagiarism, either.

Maybe the guy in the tin foil hat was right

We should all be in line to take a whack at the idiots responsible for these completely avoidable exercises in governmental overreach and hubris.  All together now: what the hell were they thinking?  I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten law-abiding citizens based on a perception of their political views, or the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten journalists in the pursuit of their constitutionally-recognized role as government watchdog.  Both are abuses of government power that fly in the face of what this country is meant to stand for.

Today the attorney general ordered the FBI to investigate the Internal Revenue Service for apparently singling out for enhanced scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status from what were perceived to be conservative political groups.  Yep, it looks like the party in power has been using the authority of the taxman to reward those with whom it agrees and punish those with whom it does not.  Is there any more textbook definition of abuse of power than that?

I’m not saying that the IRS shouldn’t be thorough in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status; the IRS should be exceedingly thorough in investigating such requests.  Wouldn’t we all be willing to believe there are those among us who would do whatever they could to reduce their tax bills, even lie about the true purpose of their organization?  There are entire political movements built on the effort to reduce taxes, but that doesn’t mean they deserve extra scrutiny.  Whatever’s determined to be the proper amount of review for gaining tax-exempt status should the bar for everyone to pass, and it’s just flat wrong for an arm of the government to single out persons or groups for extra scrutiny based on their actual or perceived political views, including their views about taxes!  (Is this a great country or what?)  The whole idea has conjured up in my imagination that happy visage of Richard Nixon and enemies lists.

It’s just as wrong, and just as dangerous to our liberty, for the Justice Department to seize phone records of journalists.  The DOJ notified The Associated Press last week that at some point earlier this year, and clearly without prior notice, it had seized records for 20 phone lines belonging to AP offices and journalists, including home phones and cell phones.  It did not state a reason why these records were seized; it’s believed to be in relation to an investigation into leaks about how the CIA disrupted a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

Our system envisions a strong press as a watchdog on government at all levels, acting as a representative of the people seeking out information that the government wants kept quiet…the stuff that the politicians and the bureaucrats don’t want you to know, that they’ve kept from you out of embarrassment or guilt.  There have been people in the government from the beginning who understood the importance of that role to the overall functioning of society, and who’ve provided sensitive information to reporters despite being told not to do so.  Today we call those people whistleblowers.  When that whistle gets blown the government’s first response is often to decide who will take the blame, and they devote a terrific amount of energy to learning who told the truth.  In some cases they ask a court to order the journalists who ran the story to tell where they got their information; in others, like this one, they just take private information without the knowledge of its owner in the hopes that they’ll be able to deduce who ratted them out.

We used to talk about the “chilling effect” that a variety of government actions would have on the newsgathering process, on the minds of the reporters who might think twice—or more than that—about pursuing a story when faced with the possibility, or the likelihood, that the government was going to fight back.  And this is that.

It’s inconceivable to me that all the people involved in these two growing scandals are merely misunderstood or made poor decisions about how to achieve a legitimate objective, but I don’t think the blame goes all the way to the top.  This president is neither that paranoid nor that stupid…although you’d think that a professor of constitutional law might have impressed on his subordinates some of his relevant thoughts about the proper use of governmental power.  If this news had come out while the last man was president, I would have accepted it as prima facie evidence of the evilness of his administration and its soulless pursuit of instituting theocratic capitalism as our new form of government.  I would have been wrong, but I admit I would have thought it.

When the government spies on reporters and appears to punish political enemies, it gives the tin foil hat crowd encouragement: “The government is spying on you—it’s keeping track of who you call and who calls you, it’s watching what you do and where you go and who you meet, it’s keeping information on your income and your taxes and your friends and who you associate with, and it’s using that information against you.”  Today that sounds a little less ridiculous that it did last week.

Unassigned additional reading:

Congratulations, America

We did some good things out there in those little voting booths yesterday…most of us…but a hearty “good on ya” to everyone who took the trouble to participate in the process beyond just running their mouths (or their typing fingers).  And as my old high school biology teacher (and football coach) used to say each Monday morning in the fall, “I’d like to say jest a few words about the happ’nins of last week.”

Light bulbThis morning McClatchy ran a pretty good early analysis of why a president who seemed to be in a neck and neck race for re-election ended up winning so decisively.

…Democrats say [President Barack] Obama was able, despite the sluggish economy, to point to achievements. He trumpeted success at preventing the economy from hitting bottom with a stimulus plan that plowed government dollars into hiring. He achieved long-sought health care legislation, enacted a firewall to prevent a relapse of the Wall Street fiasco, backed a federal bailout to save auto industry jobs, ended the war in Iraq and oversaw the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden.

“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Vice President Joe Biden suggested as an Obama campaign bumper sticker. “That about sums it up, man.”

At the close of the election, Obama was boosted by a crisis beyond any candidate’s control. As the massive storm Sandy barreled up the East Coast, Obama suspended his campaign appearances to tend to the emergency response, projecting an air of confidence and compassion and avoiding the criticism that plagued former President George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Light bulbOh, and on that neck and neck thing: Nate Silver of The New York Times 538 Blog, the target of a lot of conservative venting over his analysis of state by state polls which predicted that Obama had a way better than 50-50 chance of winning, is the smartest man on the planet today: if by now we know that Obama won Florida, Silver picked every. state’s. outcome. correctly.

“Journalists who professed to be political experts were shown to be well connected, well-informed perhaps, but – on the thing that ultimately decided the result: how people were planning to vote – not well educated. They were left reporting opinions, while Nate Silver and others reported research.”

Light bulbPolitico has a list of the dozen things we learned yesterday.

7. The Bush problem lingers

Romney’s refusal to triangulate away from President George W. Bush is one of the stranger decisions he made in this political climate.

Exit polls from Tuesday night show that a majority of voters still blame Bush for the weak economy.

This could be cause for concern for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is widely viewed as a potential 2016 hopeful and is a middle-of-the-road voice on immigration reform. It’s also an issue in terms of some of the Republicans’ top figures, such as Crossroads co-founder and former Bush political strategist Karl Rove.

How the Republicans deal with this in the next two years will be telling as their chances of reclaiming the White House next time around.

Light bulbOne more thing I learned is that Mitt Romney, though clearly in emotional pain when he took the stage in Boston, was incredibly gracious in defeat, setting a terrific example when he said “This is a time of great challenge for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”  Compare that to the creepily gleeful declaration from Republican leaders four years ago that their highest priority was to make Obama a one-term president, a priority they pursued with no discernible concern for the impact of their actions on the nation they claimed to love and swore to serve.  Those among them who don’t try to live up to Romney’s “come together” example are giving us a glimpse of their true motivations.

Light bulbSpeaking of their motivations, LZ Granderson thinks the president has won some vindication from those who’ve been clamoring to “take our country back” and have never seemed to have been able to give Obama credit for anything he’s done.

So when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his critics spent more time discrediting the importance of the award than congratulating him for winning it.

When unemployment fell under 8%, they accused the Obama administration of fixing the numbers.

When the president opted to campaign instead of surveying the damage caused by Hurricane Isaac sooner, he was called selfish. When Obama left the campaign trail to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, former FEMA Director Michael Brown criticized him for responding too quickly.

Nothing he did was good enough for them.

But on Tuesday, it was good enough for the majority of real Americans.

Light bulbThe drive to extend equal protection of the law to homosexual citizens and give them the right to marry under civil law cleared another hurdle: for the first time, voters have said yes to same-sex marriageLots of them, in fact.

Light bulbThe extremists who shanghaied the once-proud Republican Party must consider if they will moderate their views on many issues to broaden their appeal or if they’d rather defend those cherished beliefs…and lose election after election because, inconvenient though it may be to admit, most Americans just don’t agree with what they seem to stand for.

Light bulbMeanwhile, the president and the current Congress must pick up the can they kicked down the road a year ago and find an answer to correcting our government’s budget deficit: if they take no action at all, there will be massive cuts to discretionary spending at the first of the year that may well push the economy into another recession.  Swell.

OK then…let’s talk about something else for awhile, OK?

Mitt: Did I say that out loud?

Years ago I was a political junkie, but I kicked it. Turned out it was pretty easy to get the political process monkey off my back when the campaign content and tactics got so distasteful that I couldn’t bear to listen. But some things come back easily, in the right circumstances.

The “hidden video” news revealing Mitt Romney in an unguarded moment in his native environment—among the wealthy—expressing his apparently-honest feelings about a large portion of his fellow citizens left me shaking my head and imagining the effect on voters. Even if what he said was right—and mostly it’s not—demonstrating that contempt for the poor and the elderly, who make up most of those who owe no federal income tax but still pay plenty of other taxes, isn’t going to help Romney with his likeability problem. Today’s revelation of another video clip from that same fundraiser—in which Romney asserts that Palestinians (apparently, all of them) “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” with Israel—and the promise of the full video still to come, makes you grateful to live in a time when everyone with a phone is a potential hidden camera.

Romney is right about the fact that most people, on both sides, have made up their minds, and the outcome depends on the choices of a small portion of voters. The experts haven’t had time yet to gather data on how Romney’s truth outbursts in a Florida fundraiser will affect those undecided voters, but that data will get put into the mix along with this very interesting analysis of the polling up to this point which concludes that “Given where the election is being contested, however, the most likely outcome is that Obama wins enough tipping-point states to eke out a victory.” I can hardly wait for the debates!

A journey of a thousand miles begins with…

“Change is sure slow” I wrote last week; I was wrong, and couldn’t be more pleased about it.

I wrote that in a post based on a New York Times story about the growing practice of government and campaign officials demanding pre-publication approval of any direct quotes attributed to them in published news stories.  The big news media outlets that sheepishly admitted to giving “quote approval” to the subjects of their stories reacted as though they were helpless infants: if they refused they would lose access to the sources and not have the story at all…there was nothing they could do.

Nothing, except stand up to the bullies.  And prove the value of reporting a story, of shining the light of publicity on a corrupt practice.

The day after the Times story ran the Associated Press raised its hand to say it did not permit quote approval.  Soon after that Dan Rather and others weighed in; today it’s McClatchy and the National Journal stepping up to reclaim some of journalism’s tarnished heritage.  I feel confident this growing cascade of recognition of who journalists really work for isn’t going to dry up with the testimony of these disciples.  (Well done, Jeremy Peters and the Times.)

The point was true last week and remains true today: “No news publication can cede the responsibility to write its own story as its writers and editors see fit; to give up that authority to the people who are the subjects of the story is to erase any reason for you or me to believe anything they print.”  If more of them are coming around to the point of view that there is something they can do, that they can stand up to the bully, it’s just sad that they had to be embarrassed into doing the right thing.