Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Headline Acts

I came home from a long day at work, anxious to check out the news on the Internet. What new developments had there been in the physical and diplomatic hot spots of the world—Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Africa, or Capitol Hill? I went to two trusted media sources that typically deliver on the big headline items.

On CNN, a picture of Mickey Mouse and a giant red robot from some well-known movie greeted me. Oh, Disney bought Pixar...major news. So I went over to MSNBC, which had a big-time scoop for me: brain scans reveal that both Republicans and Democrats tend to ignore factual reality. Over at CBS, Goofy and the Toy Story guy were featured, apparently to announce the aforementioned Pixar purchase.

Now wait a minute, I thought...somebody's got to have some real news. You know, journalism. I went over to ABC to see what they had, and there was some improvement: a story about Al Qaeda and its possible "resurgence" following the release of the recent bin-Laden tapes. I didn't know they had exactly gone into hibernation in the first place, so this story didn't quite shock me, though ABC claims it's an "exclusive" with never-before-divulged details and revelations. There weren't any of those, but the story was worth reading for its comparison between the realities of Al Qaeda recruitment and terrorist activities in Pakistan on the one hand, and the "everything is beautiful" glare cast into our eyes by the Crawford Coward and his opposite number from Paki. Not bad, ABC.

The Times here leads off with a recitation of the obvious: the Altio nomination got out of committee. OK, all the more reason for a lot of us to remind our Senators to do their damned jobs. Then finally I went to BBC, where I can usually be confident of finding journalism as it was meant to be. Their lead story was on a statement from acting PM of Israel Ehud Omert, who is calling for increased withdrawals from the West Bank. Otherwise, it was the Pixar story again, along with the Pope's first encyclical.

I was getting desperate now...somebody has to be scratching the surface a little harder than this...there's a war on; the U.S. government is threatened with the darkest scandal to hit the White House in at least a generation, and Capitol Hill in perhaps a century. Canada, embroiled in a similar stew of corruption, just voted to completely turn its own government upside down. Georgians are accusing the Putin government of malignant and life-threatening decadence in the "gasputin" scandal.

So the mass media online had clearly forgotten its job again tonight. Before giving up on the search for journalism as a bad job, I checked one of my personal favorites, a rather obscure online entity called Editor and Publisher.

Paydirt: there, I found a story about a former director of the NSA who had given a talk about the Constitution and (in particular) the Fourth Amendment, to a group of reporters—one of whom, Jonathan Landay of Knight-Ridder—had the gumption to question the general's mastery of the actual terms of the Fourth Amendment. It's an amazing, revealing vignette of the kind of institutional ignorance that has defined the Bush administration from day one.

Here's part of the exchange between journalist and powerful newsmaker—I offer it as a sterling example of what journalism is supposed to be:

QUESTION: Jonathan Landay with Knight Ridder. I'd like to stay on the same issue, and that had to do with the standard by which you use to target your wiretaps. I'm no lawyer, but my understanding is that the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution specifies that you must have probable cause to be able to do a search that does not violate an American's right against unlawful searches and seizures. Do you use --

GEN. HAYDEN: No, actually -- the Fourth Amendment actually protects all of us against unreasonable search and seizure.

QUESTION: But the --

GEN. HAYDEN: That's what it says.

QUESTION: But the measure is probable cause, I believe.

GEN. HAYDEN: The amendment says unreasonable search and seizure.

QUESTION: But does it not say probable --

GEN. HAYDEN: No. The amendment says --

QUESTION: The court standard, the legal standard --

GEN. HAYDEN: -- unreasonable search and seizure.

QUESTION: The legal standard is probable cause, General. You used the terms just a few minutes ago, "We reasonably believe." And a FISA court, my understanding is, would not give you a warrant if you went before them and say "we reasonably believe"; you have to go to the FISA court, or the attorney general has to go to the FISA court and say, "we have probable cause."

And so what many people believe -- and I'd like you to respond to this -- is that what you've actually done is crafted a detour around the FISA court by creating a new standard of "reasonably believe" in place of probable cause because the FISA court will not give you a warrant based on reasonable belief, you have to show probable cause. Could you respond to that, please?

GEN. HAYDEN: Sure. I didn't craft the authorization. I am responding to a lawful order. All right? The attorney general has averred to the lawfulness of the order.

Please note, good pilgrims, that the journalist, Mr. Landay, is actually citing the law—that is, the Constitution of our country—to make his point, while the Bush official is citing...authority (the word of the AG). Now, which one would you rather have leading your government? My vote goes to Mr. Landay, and I see his approach as a model that we might be well served to follow.

So here's an idea: what I would like to do now is to re-visit the Constitution and see what else lurks in that document that our government and its leaders (and maybe even a certain Supreme Court nominee) are entirely opaque to in their understanding. If you'd like to get in on this exercise, just write me and let me know. This is bound to be instructive...I know I'll learn something.

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