Category Archives: Media

The New York Times’ terrible anonymous sourcing

This is what is wrong with anonymous sourcing. It can be great for sensitive stories in which going on the record would justify someone’s career and when there is no other way to get the information. But this work, by Gerry Mullany and Scott Shane at The New York Times, is just fancily stated hearsay. In a piece about the ongoing Edward Snowden case, they add this:

For the past week, Mr. Snowden, 30, appears to have been staying in an apartment in Hong Kong’s Western District that is controlled by the Hong Kong government’s security branch, according to a person who has followed the case and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Emphasis mine. That could be virtually anyone who watches the news and called the New York Times to spout off. Presumably, the Times has reason to believe this source, and there’s a good chance they’re right. But the paper is asking for a lot of trust from its readers if they want us to believe that, and if they turn out wrong they’ve gone out on a limb for very little substance.

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Some of the best Boston Marathon and Watertown Manhunt coverage

While the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the week of confusion that followed spawned some of the worst journalism in recent memory, it also gave some very talented journalists and writers an opportunity to shine.

Here is a roundup of some of the best stories, chosen by readers and myself, about the week’s events:

In an instant, a perfect day had morphed into something viscerally evil.

The location and timing of the bombs was sinister beyond belief, done purposely to maximize death and destruction. Among those who watched in horror as a fireball belched out across the sidewalk on Boylston were the parents of the schoolkids murdered in Newtown, Conn. The ­Atlantic reported they were sitting in a VIP section at the finish line, across the street from the explosion.

One nurse told me she remembered EMTs running out to the site of the explosion the moment the bombs burst. “They were off before I could blink,” she said. Many physicians followed. “After I saw a guy in a wheelchair coming into the tent with a head wound,” Rouzier said, “I decided to go to the scene.” He texted his wife what might be a good-bye message: There’s a bomb at the finish line and we have to help. “I didn’t want to die,” he said, “but there were people out there.”

Talking to people about that day, I was struck by how ready and almost rehearsed they were for this event. A decade earlier, nothing approaching their level of collaboration and efficiency would have occurred. We have, as one colleague put it to me, replaced our pre-9/11 naïveté with post-9/11 sobriety. Where before we’d have been struck dumb with shock about such events, now we are almost calculating about them. When ball bearings and nails were found in the wounds of the victims, everyone understood the bombs had been packed with them as projectiles. At every hospital, clinicians considered the possibility of chemical or radiation contamination, a second wave of attacks, or a direct attack on a hospital. Even nonmedical friends e-mailed and texted me to warn people about secondary and tertiary explosive devices aimed at responders. Everyone’s imaginations have come to encompass these once unimaginable events.

  •  4:09:43, Interactive Graphic, The New York Times

One week ago — at approximately 2:50 p.m. on Monday, just over four hours into the race — the first of two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This image, taken from the NBC broadcast of the race, shows the flash of the explosion and the final split-second of normalcy before the area turned into what witnesses described as a war zone. Here are the stories of the runners and spectators seen in this image.

The story of how Boston resident Carlos Arredondo helped save the life of a man severely wounded in the Marathon bombings began nearly nine years ago.

Arredondo, now known worldwide as the man in a cowboy hat photographed wheeling an injured bombing victim on April 15, saw his life change dramatically — on his 44th birthday, Aug. 25, 2004. On that day, Marine officers in a government van arrived at the driveway of his home in Florida.

“He woke up under so much drugs, asked for a paper and pen and wrote, ‘bag, saw the guy, looked right at me,’” Chris Bauman said yesterday in an interview.

The work was painstaking and mind-numbing: One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times. The goal was to construct a timeline of images, following possible suspects as they moved along the sidewalks, building a narrative out of a random jumble of pictures from thousands of different phones and cameras.

“We were off scene and at the hospital in three minutes,” he said. “Overall we might have got the call, picked up Donohue and arrived at the hospital in eight minutes. I didn’t find out my brother was the one driving until we got to the hospital.”

It was over. The jubilation began to spread. A slow procession of emergency vehicles made their way through a gauntlet formed by the growing crowd. The ambulances, the cop cars, even the Watertown utility truck whose giant flood lights had illuminated Tsarnaev’s final hiding place were ushered through with grateful cheers. “You can set us back, but you can’t knock us down!” screamed the man in the sleeveless T-shirt.

Disclosure: Jeff Howe, who wrote “Captured in Watertown,” is a professor at Northeastern University who I work with on some stories. I didn’t participate in any aspect of the reporting, writing or editing of “Captured in Watertown.”

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Google exec. says no to private drones

A new technology, developed for government use, with still-unknown potential uses for the gathering and distribution of information and things should be strictly regulated and kept out of the hands of private citizens, said the guy who helped change the world with a new technology, developed for government use, with still-unknown potential uses for the gathering and distribution of information and things.

In an interview with James Ball of The Guardian, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt said he doesn’t think privately-owned drones should be allowed, and there should be an international treaty to that effect.

“You’re having a dispute with your neighbour,” he hypothesised. “How would you feel if your neighbour went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?”

Schmidt set out the trajectory of robotic warfare and considered whether it would be confined solely to national governments. “It’s probable that robotics becomes a significant component of nation state warfare,” he said.

“I’m not going to pass judgment on whether armies should exist, but I would prefer to not spread and democratise the ability to fight war to every single human being.

Laying aside the blatant irony of a Google executive warning about the dangers of other people having too much access to private information (which The Guardian, to their great credit, raised with him), Schmidt seems to have an extremely narrow view of what Unmanned Aerial Systems can be used for.

“It’s got to be regulated. … It’s one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they’re doing, but have other people doing it … It’s not going to happen,” Schmidt said. Like many of his comments on the subject, this sounds like a compelling argument for gun control, but it’s a stretch to apply this to drones.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator. USAF Photo via Flickr.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator. USAF Photo via Flickr.

Schmidt seems to have a fairly limited view of what drones are. The word has become near-synonymous with the military’s fixed-wing craft which are used for surveillance and targeted missile strikes abroad.

Other uses of remotely-piloted aircraft could be as revolutionary in their fields as the Predator-style drone has been for asymmetrical warfare, though. The problem, Schmidt points out, is that these fields could include invasion of privacy, stalking, harassment, and – in some dystopian view of the future – citizen warfare.

It’d be hard to make a sound argument against any regulations against flying robots operating around private homes and public airports, but to take them out of the hands of private citizens as Schmidt suggests would deal a great blow to the world’s ability to innovate. From medicine delivery in Africa to taco delivery in the San Francisco bay area to crop spraying, unmanned aircraft, multiple industry experts have told me, have the potential to be the “next big thing.”

And Schmidt, who works at the top of Google, which was created when two enterprising entrepreneurs thought of a new way to use the internet – originally created for the Department of Defense – should see that.

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First World Problems: Haiti Edition

Last year, I wrote about the trend of saying “first world problems,” and how it’s offensive to some people. The argument, while it’s almost too politically correct, is a good one. Here is a string of tweets (compiled by Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic) by novelist Teju Cole articulating his issue with the phrase.

I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.

One event that illustrated the gap between the Africa of conjecture and the real Africa was the BlackBerry outage of a few weeks ago. Who would have thought Research In Motion’s technical issues would cause so much annoyance and inconvenience in a place like Lagos? But of course it did, because people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. None of this is to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structures here. There are lifestyles of the rich and famous, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.

And while Cole has a lot of good points here, a new ad by waterislife.com features impoverished Haitians reading some choice #FirstWorldProblems tweets. While they might have to endure the silly stuff too, the ad provides a stark contrast to Cole’s complaints and makes anyone using the phrase look like an ass for entirely different reasons.

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Romney video isn’t ‘investigative reporting,’ as Mother Jones claims

James Carter IV on Hardball with Chris Matthews after the Romney video leaked.

James Carter IV on Hardball with Chris Matthews after the Romney video leaked.

Mitt Romney has frequently taken shots at ex-President Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail, so it’s only fitting that Carter’s own grandson would be the one to pass the now-viral video of Romney, thinking he’s behind closed doors, slamming the 47 percent of Americans who feel entitled to government handouts and yadda yadda yadda. But Mother Jones, the liberal news magazine that published the video, is trying to cash in on what they claim as their own “investigative reporting.”

Mother Jones (as just about any outlet would), is looking to capitalize on the massive flow of traffic to their site. A popover on the site when readers are on their way to see the videos says “Urgent: Please support investigative reporting.” Their fundraising page urges potential donors with: “We depend on you to support our investigative reporting, like the exposé on Mitt Romney’s secretly taped remarks.”

But the story of how the lefty mag got their mits on the video makes it pretty clear they did only slightly more than jack-squat to get the video. [Hear MoJoer David Corn, who published the video, talk about how he got the tape, around the 12-15 minute mark on On Point with Tom Ashbrook.] The credit, in reality, goes to the unemployed grandson of ex-President Jimmy Carter. James Carter IV, a liberal on a personal mission to take down the former Massachusetts governor for the slights against President Carter, found the video on YouTube.

From The Huffington Post:

The grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and a self-fashioned Democratic opposition researcher, the younger Carter had watched countless hours of footage of Republican Mitt Romney and made it a habit to search YouTube every few days for keywords like “Romney” and “Republicans.”

But on this day in August, one clip jumped out. There was Romney, in an undisclosed location, bluntly discussing a visit to a Chinese factory with substandard conditions.

“The hidden camera video – it was all blurred out at the beginning, and it was mysterious,” Carter said. “It piqued my interest.”

An independent, non-profit news organization is trying to raise money. Having worked for one, I understand the drive, and I don’t fault them for using their 15 minutes to try to raise money, but calling what David Corn did “investigative reporting” is not only misleading, but it steals the credit from a sharp guy who committed a serious act of citizen journalism.

Give money to Mother Jones if you want; the world always needs more voices. But before you do that, get this guy a job.

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CNN International’s missing piece

Earlier this week, columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote about a surprising lapse in coverage by the international arm of CNN. Fed by former CNN reporter Amber Lyon and an anonymous source inside CNN, Greenwald painted a picture of an organization succumbing to pressure from the U.S.-supported Bahraini government.

Lacking coverage is nothing new in journalism. Ever since the internet, news organizations have struggled to put together deep, comprehensive coverage – especially of international stories – due to the cost. But CNN (the American branch) put up $100,000 to make an hour-long expose of the brutality of the Bahraini government. To CNNi, the cutesy name the cable news giant slapped on their international brand, it was free money. The program would be well-watched, generate ad revenue, and reaffirm CNNi’s commitment to getting waist-deep in the muck.

CNNi’s decision not to broadcast “iRevolution” was extremely unusual. Both CNN and CNNi have had severe budget constraints imposed on them over the last several years. One long-time CNN employee (to whom I have granted anonymity to avoid repercussions for negative statements about CNN’s management) described “iRevolution” as an “expensive, highly produced international story about the Arab Spring”. Because the documentary was already paid for by CNN, it would have been “free programming” for CNNi to broadcast, making it “highly unusual not to air it”. The documentary “was made with an international audience as our target”, said Lyon. None of it was produced on US soil. And its subject matter was squarely within the crux of CNN International’s brand.

So why not run it? CNN’s responses were lacking at best, and sounded more like the prefab responses more fit to an oppresive regime than a leading international news organization.

“The documentary ‘iRevolution’ was commissioned for CNN US. While the programme did not air in full on CNN International, segments of it were shown. This differing use of content is normal across our platforms, and such decisions are taken for purely editorial reasons. CNN International has run more than 120 stories on Bahrain over the past six months, a large number of which were critical in tone and all of which meet the highest journalistic standards.”

Highest journalistic standards? How about this: After Lyon tweeted that CNNi’s failure to air her documentary “baffled producers,” she got a call.

The following day, a representative of CNN’s business affairs office called Lyon’s acting agent, George Arquilla of Octagon Entertainment, and threatened that her severance payments and insurance benefits would be immediately terminated if she ever again spoke publicly about this matter, or spoke negatively about CNN.

CNN refuses to comment on those allegations, noting that they don’t discuss personell matters, but the story doesn’t look good for CNNi’s integrity. And that’s without even mentioning the messy business CNN is in with state-sponsored programming.

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Anthony Shadid tributes from across the web

Shadid

News outlets and twitter were abuzz yesterday with the death of Anthony Shadid, a veteran foreign correspondent covering Syria for The New York Times. He reportedly died of an athsma attack at the end of a week-long reporting trip to Syria.

Today, the web was full of tributes to Shadid. Many successful reporters who either knew him personally or were influenced by his work paid tribute to Shadid. Here are a few such tributes:

I ran into my office, turned on the TV, and quickly started calling my bosses and colleagues.

Then I ran back into the lobby, where I literally bumped into Anthony as he came in the door.

“What’s going on?” he said.

“Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center” I told him. “They think it’s a terrorist attack.”

Stunned into silence for a half-beat, he then offered a prescient response.

“This is the biggest story of our lives,” Anthony replied.

It was, especially for him.

What ensued the past decade was a gift for people on both ends on Anthony’s reporting.

Photo/Creative Commons/Flickr user Terissa Schor

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Charles Taylor and The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe published what seemed to be a solid article on Jan. 17, alleging that former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor had been a U.S. intelligence informant. The article was based on a Freedom of Information Act request and stated that:

After a quarter-century of silence, the US government has confirmed what has long been rumored: Taylor, who would become president of Liberia and the first African leader tried for war crimes, worked with US spy agencies during his rise as one of the world’s most notorious dictators.

The disclosure on the former president comes in response to a request filed by the Globe six years ago under the Freedom of Information Act. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s spy arm, confirmed its agents and CIA agents worked with Taylor beginning in the early 1980s.

The story goes into methodology to some extent, stating their reasons for drawing that conclusion, etc.

Yesterday, however, the paper issued an editor’s note backing down almost completely.

A journalism professor professor of mine, Dan Kennedy, wrote up the case in more detail on Media Nation. If there’s anything fishy about this case, one of Kennedy’s readers, ‘dm wilson’ summed it up in a comment:

it’s a troubling editor’s note. don’t you think Bender would have had to have this conversation with his editors before the piece was published?

Yes. Without a doubt, an investigative story that the Globe knew would make a worldwide splash would be thoroughly checked out for holes and flaws, but the editor’s note seems to imply the paper did no such fact-checking.

Either the Globe made an extreme oversight, giving free reign to a rogue journalist or they allowed an outside source undue influence over their editorial process. Both scenarios seem unlikely.

It’s a strange case, as Kennedy says.

Bender is a good and careful reporter, and it seems pretty clear that there are other shoes yet to be dropped. The only thing we can say for certain at this point is that it’s all way too weird to come to any conclusions.

Disclosure: I spent the fall of 2011 working for boston.com, the Globe’s free website. I’m no longer on the company’s payroll.

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WikiLeaks wins Australian journalism prize

In one of the largest acknowledgements of WikiLeaks as a journalistic organization, an Australian organization, the Walkley Foundation awarded the secret-spilling site for its “outstanding contribution to journalism,” AFP reports:

“WikiLeaks applied new technology to penetrate the inner workings of government to reveal an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup,” the Walkley trustees said in bestowing the award Sunday evening.

“Its revelations, from the way the war on terror was being waged, to diplomatic bastardry, high-level horse-trading and the interference in the domestic affairs of nations, have had an undeniable impact.”

War on terror? There’s an app for that.

Securitycam

One of Silicon Valley’s most impressive startups isn’t cranking out iPhone apps or taking aim at the Zuckerberg throne, it’s fighting the war on terror. Bloomberg Businessweek checked out Palantir, a firm that repurposes already-available information to help federal agents connect the dots. Think Wolfram Aplha on steroids.

The story starts by setting up fictional would-be terrorist Mike Fikri, who flew one-way from Cairo to Miami, rented a truck, and then spent his day at Disney World, but he didn’t take the rides, he took photos of the crowds. In the process, he’s wiring money to and frequently calling a group of suspected terrorists in Syria.

Unless someone was physically following Fikri, it would be difficult for the Feds to put all of these clues together what seems obvious to a reader in that paragraph: Mike Fikri is going to bomb Disney World.

Enter Palantir, the made-to-order software firm in Silicon Valley:

The day Fikri drives to Orlando, he gets a speeding ticket, which triggers an alert in the CIA’s Palantir system. An analyst types Fikri’s name into a search box and up pops a wealth of information pulled from every database at the government’s disposal. There’s fingerprint and DNA evidence for Fikri gathered by a CIA operative in Cairo; video of him going to an ATM in Miami; shots of his rental truck’s license plate at a tollbooth; phone records; and a map pinpointing his movements across the globe. All this information is then displayed on a clearly designed graphical interface that looks like something Tom Cruise would use in a Mission: Impossible movie.

As the CIA analyst starts poking around on Fikri’s file inside of Palantir, a story emerges. A mouse click shows that Fikri has wired money to the people he had been calling in Syria. Another click brings up CIA field reports on the Syrians and reveals they have been under investigation for suspicious behavior and meeting together every day over the past two weeks. Click: The Syrians bought plane tickets to Miami one day after receiving the money from Fikri. To aid even the dullest analyst, the software brings up a map that has a pulsing red light tracing the flow of money from Cairo and Syria to Fikri’s Miami condo. That provides local cops with the last piece of information they need to move in on their prey before he strikes.

Palantir is the answer to the unforseen problem of the electronic information boom: With oceans of personal data being collected and transmitted every day, how can law enforcement and military officials see the right information before it’s too late?

The software works by pairing its whip-smart AI with a group of relevant databases.

None of Fikri’s individual actions would raise suspicions. Lots of people rent trucks or have relations in Syria, and no doubt there are harmless eccentrics out there fascinated by amusement park infrastructure. Taken together, though, they suggested that Fikri was up to something. And yet, until about four years ago, his pre-attack prep work would have gone unnoticed. A CIA analyst might have flagged the plane ticket purchase; an FBI agent might have seen the bank transfers. But there was nothing to connect the two. Lucky for counterterror agents, not to mention tourists in Orlando, the government now has software made by Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that’s become the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

It’s not hard to imagine that the CIA or FBI could access security footage of any random person leaving the local convenience store, and it’s not hard to imagine they could get their hands on someone’s credit card transaction data. The scary (or awesome, if that person has bad intentions) part comes when Palantir puts two and two together. Using credit card transaction data, it will pull up security footage from everywhere a person has used their credit card, so the feds can know what their mark is wearing when they move in for a take down, and maybe even what they have with them.

For a full writeup on how incredibly cool Palantir is (and it is cool, amazingly cool), read the full article. I can’t do it justice here.

Despite being the stuff of a spy thriller, Palantir is a real company making real software for real government agencies who use it to spy on real people. Wasn’t it nice to watch Minority Report and say “That sure is cool, but I’m glad they can’t know where I am all the time just by sitting at the computer”? They can.

Palantir should exist. While Businessweek reports that the software’s real-life accomplishments are often classified, it’s hard to believe something that powerful hasn’t done some serious work saving lives. But who is using this, and for what? Is anyone looking over their shoulder?

Using Palantir technology, the FBI can now instantly compile thorough dossiers on U.S. citizens, tying together surveillance video outside a drugstore with credit-card transactions, cell-phone call records, e-mails, airplane travel records, and Web search information. Christopher Soghoian, a graduate fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, worries that Palantir will make these agencies ever hungrier consumers of every piece of personal data. “I don’t think Palantir the firm is evil,” he says. “I think their clients could be using it for evil things.”

Soghoian points out that Palantir’s senior legal adviser, Bryan Cunningham, authored an amicus brief three years ago supporting the Bush Administration’s position in the infamous warrantless wiretapping case and defended its monitoring domestic communication without search warrants. Another event that got critics exercised: A Palantir engineer, exposed by the hacker collective Anonymous earlier this year for participating in a plot to break into the PCs of WikiLeaks supporters, was quietly rehired by the company after being placed on leave.

The company claims it has installed a powerful privacy protection feature that tracks which users are accessing which files and what they’re doing with them. This is promising in theory, but Soghoin says it’s naive to think its a solution to the accountability problem.

Soghoian scoffs at the privacy-protecting features Palantir builds into its software. “If you don’t think the NSA can disable the piece of auditing functionality, you have to be kidding me,” he says. “They can do whatever they want, so it’s ridiculous to assume that this audit trail is sufficient.”

So maybe that tinfoil hat was a good idea after all.

Photo/Creative Commons/Flickr user cjelli

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