May 31, 2005 | 12:10 AM ET

It's ironic, but the European Constitution championed by French politicians has gone down to defeat -- the New York Times calls it a " crushing defeat" --at the hands of French voters.

Dutch voters will vote in their own referendum on Wednesday, and the defeat is expected to be even more lopsided there.

In theory, this is the end:  The EU Constitution was only to enter into force if its adoption was unanimous.  Now, however, quite a few people expect the goalposts to be moved, as a whole generation of Euro-politicians has made this the central investment of their careers.  Mark Steyn writes:

Heartening to see democracy in action, notwithstanding the European elite's hysterical warnings that, without the constitution, the continent will be set back on the path to Auschwitz.  I haven't seen the official ballot, but the choice seems to be: "Check Box A to support the new constitution; check Box B for genocide and conflagration."

Alas, this tactic doesn't seem to have worked.  So, a couple of days before the first referendum, Jean-Claude Juncker, the "president" of the European Union, let French and Dutch voters know how much he values their opinion:  "If at the end of the ratification process, we do not manage to solve the problems, the countries that would have said No, would have to ask themselves the question again," "President" Juncker told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

Got that? You have the right to vote, but only if you give the answer your rulers want you to give. But don't worry, if you don't, we'll treat you like a particularly backward nursery school and keep asking the question until you get the answer right.

Such an approach would be typical of the EU's politics, which evince nothing so much as a powerful desire on the part of the Eurocrats to reinstate the kind of transnational aristocracy that ran Europe before World War I.  The EU's strategy has typically favored obfuscation over transparency, backroom deals over open debate, and bureaucratic decree over electoral decisionmaking.

With that in mind, it's probably no surprise that the Constitution -- immensely long, immensely complicated, and designed to take as many decisions as possible away from the voters -- has done badly with, er, the voters.

Europe's problem is that it wants two inconsistent things.  Some Europeans -- the ruling classes, basically -- care about prestige, and want Europe to be a superpower that can compete with the United States, returning to Europe some of the world-dominating glory that it lost in the 20th Century's world wars.  Others -- the working classes, basically -- want the kind of easy life, low workload, and overarching social safety net, developed when Europe was an American protectorate, whose enormous and growing cost makes any sort of superpower status a pipedream.  To be a superpower like America, Europe would have to become more like America in other ways:  Harder-working, more capitalistic, less cushioned.  After decades of being told that Europe's superiority was to be found in generous welfare benefits and short work-weeks, Europeans chose those over their leaders' geopolitical ambitions.

In the long run, of course, they will probably have neither.  Europe's welfare state is probably unsustainable anyway, even without the additional burdens imposed by superpower status.  (In fact, as the Social Security debate illustrates, even the much less generous American welfare state is probably unsustainable over the long term -- but the "long term" here is considerably longer than Europe's).

The question is what comes next.  I'm actually rather worried about Europe, which faces major challenges over the coming decades from economic stagnation, out-of-control immigration, and a rather high degree of corruption and crony-capitalism.  Given Europe's demonstrated historical tendency to produce poor politicians, and then to plunge the world into bloody chaos when those politicians fail, I think those worries are justified.  Let's hope that things turn out better in this century than they did in the last.

May 26, 2005 | 1:57 PM ET

Flu fears

There's trouble brewing in Asia, and it has nothing to do with China's military ambitions.  It's Avian Flu, and there's reason to think that the next big global flu pandemic -- like 1958 if we're lucky, like 1918 if we're not -- may be on the way.

The scientific journal Nature has published a special issue on the subject, in the hopes of drawing attention to the problem:

In the pages that follow, our reporters examine nations' capacity to produce a vaccine against a pandemic strain, and the adequacy of global stockpiles of antiviral drugs.  They do not paint an encouraging picture.

Repeated warnings about the international community's failure to respond to the pandemic threat have fallen on deaf ears.

They've also dramatized the subject by publishing a fictional Weblog by a journalist covering next year's epidemic.  That's an unusual step for a science journal, but as the editors of Nature put it:  "This is fiction, but not fantasy — the storyline was drawn up in consultation with those who could soon be dealing with the situation for real."

I hope that we've learned some important lessons from the inadequate response to the SARS outbreak.  In the meantime, there's not a lot we can do ourselves:  The anti-flu drug Tamiflu is thought to be protective against avian flu, but there's no guarantee that it will work against the mutant strain that scientists fear.  And you can't stockpile it, because you need a prescription.

Let's hope that the powers-that-be do a better than usual job of guarding against this kind of an outbreak, and that they build up a stronger capacity to respond to other, still unforeseen, diseases quickly.  The world is an increasingly crowded and interconnected place, and epidemics are the norm under those kinds of circumstances.

Let's be ready.

May 24, 2005 | 4:00 PM ET

Saving the First Amendment

I worry that freedom of the press -- which in its modern extent is basically a creature of the post-World War II Supreme Court -- is likely to be at risk if people see it as merely a special-interest protection for a news-media industry that is producing defective products that do harm.

But, as Alex Beam notes in The Boston Globe, media folks often encourage such a view, by failing to stand up for the free-speech rights of non-big-media folks:

Apple Computer sued 19-year-old journalist Nicholas Ciarelli in January for disclosing trade secrets on his Apple news website Think Secret.  A typical Think Secret annoyance: The site correctly predicted the appearance of the Mac Mini, a small, low-cost Macintosh computer, two weeks before the product was officially announced.

Ciarelli is accused of doing exactly what reporters all over America are supposed to be doing: finding and publishing information that institutions don't want to reveal.
...
Where are the always-vocal guardians of the First Amendment?  Where is the American Civil Liberties Union?  Where is the American Society of Newspaper Editors?  Where, for that matter, is Harvard's Nieman Foundation?  They have publicly supported the higher profile case of The New York Times's Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matt Cooper, who have been ordered to reveal the sources of their reporting on the contentious Valerie Plame case.  But I found not a word about Ciarelli -- a Harvard undergraduate and a beat reporter for the Harvard Crimson -- on the Nieman Watchdog website.

Maybe it's time for the Niemans to stop playing footsie with the butchers of Beijing and start standing up to the control freaks of Cupertino.

Apparently, Ciarelli's status as "non-traditional media" is costing him support.

Some media outfits are supporting him, though, and others would be well-advised to do so.  Big media outfits have been squandering their credibility and public regard for decades, and I suspect that this is likely to put free-press protections at risk.  Ironically, their greatest hope for salvation is for lots of "non-traditional media" to get involved in publishing too, giving the public at large a greater stake in freedom of the press.

If Americans regard press freedom as someone else's protection, they're likely to be much cooler toward the First Amendment than if they regard press freedom as their own.  And that's more likely to happen if the explosion of self-published Internet media, often sniffed at by "traditional media" folks, continues.  If Big Media is to be saved, it may be Little Media that is responsible.

May 23, 2005 | 12:38 PM ET

The news media, in a hole and still digging

Jayson Blair, RatherGate, the "brutal Afghan winter," phony stories about Koran desecration, plagiarism, and fraud:  It's been a bad time for the news media.  In yesterday's New York Times, Patrick Healy wonders if it's possible for the press to regain its formerly respected position:

After all, Johnson & Johnson proved that credibility, not to mention market share, could be regained after scandal - in its case, a series of deaths caused by cyanide-laced capsules some 20 years ago. Part of the strategy was to portray the company as a victim in its own right.

"We expressed genuine regret and took the hit, and made an honest effort to get the facts out," said Harold Burson, the public relations titan who advised the company's executives at the time. "And we tried to behave with the public interest at heart, such as reassuring the mothers of America that our products were dependable."

Compared with the news media outlets, Tylenol may have had it easy. It would be hard for the media to pitch itself as a innocent victim of its own shortcomings. And though journalists like to think of themselves as guardians of the public trust, too, opinion polls for at least two decades have shown declining faith in print and television news. Reassuring the public that these products are dependable, in turn, has proved frustratingly elusive.

Healy's right.  And, just to prove his point, he was immediately busted for offering revisionist history regarding the Newsweek Koran debacle.

Worse yet, people were asking why, if Newsweek thought Koran-desecration was so bad, it had no qualms about portraying a dirtied American flag in a trashcan on the cover of its Japanese edition.  Chalk it up to cultural insensitivity, I guess.  Insensitivity, that is, to American culture.  There seems to be a lot of that.  I wish I had news media outlets that I could trust, that I didn't have reason to suspect suffered from the problem described this way by ABC White House correspondent Terry Moran:

It comes from, I think, a huge gulf of misunderstanding, for which I lay plenty of blame on the media itself.  There is, Hugh, I agree with you, a deep anti-military bias in the media.  One that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong.  I think that that is a hangover from Vietnam, and I think it's very dangerous.  That's different from the media doing it's job of challenging the exercise of power without fear or favor.

Yes, it is.  I hope that more people in the press will catch on.  Because despite the many failures, the press gets it right most of the time.  (Of course, so do the business enterprises and military organizations that the press savages on a regular basis.)  And, more importantly, we'd be a lot better off with a press that we could rely on, a press whose members didn't think that "objectivity" was the same as anti-Americanism, a press that was more interested in accurate reporting than in political spin.

Maybe, one day, we'll have one.

May 18, 2005 | 7:03 PM ET

Dirty tricks against the blogosphere?

Over three years ago, I wrote:

I think they're doomed, technologically. But if Big Media let their position go without a fight to keep it by fair means or foul, they'll be the first example of a privileged group that did so. So beware.

It seems to me that the fighting may have started, though so far Big Media aren't the most important privileged group involved.  (But see what happens in the wake of the Newsweek debacle.)  Blogs and bloggers wield small but significant power, and they do so at the expense of established interests that wield much more power themselves.  Now the empire seems to be striking back.

A while back, it was General Motors, sending thuggish security guys to threaten bloggers who published photos of the new Corvette before their official release:

A Texas computer consultant said he stumbled upon photos of a silver-blue Z06 on the Internet and posted them that afternoon on a Corvette online discussion forum he frequents.  Five days later, on Nov. 14, two men from Securitas, GM's contract security firm, knocked on the door of his Houston home demanding to know who gave him the pictures.  He said he refused to let them in, and their parting shot was, "We'll see you in court."

His response was to publish more, along with a report of the thuggish behavior that made GM look bad.  And that's typically been the result of efforts to silence bloggers so far.  Not everyone has learned, though, as Apple's efforts to silence unwelcome speech illustrate:

Apple recently alarmed those who treasure free speech when it took aggressive legal steps against bloggers who leaked new product details -- acting a bit like the Big Brother Apple used to proudly proclaim it wasn't. The company also pulled John Wiley & Sons' books out of its stores after the tech publisher printed an unauthorized biography titled "iCon Steve Jobs."  Not cool.

Nope, not cool.  And it produced more bad publicity than it prevented, as such efforts often do.  (Apple even wound up with Big Media outfits weighing in in support of the bloggers, which can't be good.  Full disclosure:  I've joined in this Stanford brief in support of the bloggers, myself.)  But the most outrageous anti-blogger behavior involved the GrokLaw blog, and wound up getting reporter Maureen O'Gara, along with some other employess of LinuxWorld magazine, put out of work for publishing all sorts of personal information regarding GrokLaw's semi-anonymous blogger, publication that seems to have been inspired by hostility about what the blog was reporting.

I think that we'll see more things like this in the future.  But so far these assaults on bloggers have one common theme:  They were miserable failures.  What's more, not only did they fail, they also generated a considerable amount of PR blowback -- enough so that at least one tech columnist is suggesting a boycott of LinuxWorld's publisher and advertiser.

Instead of going after bloggers, I suggest that businesses in and out of the media consider a different approach:  Try telling the truth, and dealing honestly with critics.  Hey, it just might work.

May 18, 2005 | 12:23 AM ET

Newsweek retracts, the press attacks

Newsweek has retracted its report, which it now says it can't back up, about Koran-flushing at Guantanamo.  Here's what David Gergen said on Hardball :

MATTHEWS: David Gergen, let me ask you about this. This is a classic for journalism school, of course, but also political science, because here we have a war we're fighting which isn't exactly a trench war or a war of firepower. It's a war of religion and culture. And this is perfect ammo for the enemy.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Absolutely.

And it has been exploited by the enemy.  It was seized upon.  And it was translated and then seized upon by people who are anti-American.  And it has been used for their purposes to foment all this violence.  But that does not let "Newsweek" off the hook, nor does it let the individual who gave them the story off the hook.

That's right.  And what's interesting is that the Newsweek folks don't seem to have understood what they were playing with.

Newsweek's Mark Whitaker explained:  "I suppose you could say we should have foreseen the consequences of the report, but we didn't."

To them, this was a minor domestic "gotcha" story, a way to needle the Administration with some bad news.  It blew up in their faces.

But the press as a whole, as displayed at today's press briefing, has responded by demonstrating the very bias and hostility that everyone has come to associate with their behavior.  My favorite was this question for White House Press Secretary McClellan:  "Q: With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek?"

This from a member of an industry that is happy to tell everyone else how they should run their businesses, wars, and lives.  Humility would play better than arrogance about now.  Gergen went on to say that he thinks we may be at a "tipping point" of precipitous decline in respect for the news media.  This sort of conduct won't help.

May 16, 2005 | 10:30 AM ET

'Newsweek lied, people died'

"Newsweek lied, people died."  That seems to be the blogosphere's take on Newsweek's miserable failure of reporting that led to riots and deaths in Afghanistan.

Newsweek ran an anonymously sourced item claiming that U.S. interrogators had flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo.  Now Newsweek has admitted that it can't support the allegations, and has offered a weak apology .

As military blog The Mudville Gazette notes, false reports along these lines have been a staple of Al Qaeda propaganda -- and of dishonest American press coverage:

In a similar episode Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner held a press conference in which he displayed graphic photos of what he claimed were US soldiers raping Iraqi women. The Boston Globe ran the pictures in a very large, above the fold front page story, but found themselves apologizing shortly thereafter when it was revealed that Turner's collection had been downloaded from an internet porn site - they were fakes. In January 2004 reports of American soldiers ripping up a Koran and desecrating a Mosque in Iraq made brief headlines, until the US released video of the raid and debunked the claims. Now Newsweek - an American magazine - apparently lends a new credence to what might be otherwise questionable reports.

It's not as if journalists don't know how to be exquisitely sensitive about their reporting when they care to be:  Media organs, for example, don't normally report the race of those who perpetrate crimes, for fear that such reports might reinforce stereotypes or lead to lynching.  But passing along unfounded rumors that reinforce enemy propaganda in wartime, and lead to significant diplomatic and military problems in a friendly country doesn't, apparently, rise to the level of importance required to trigger such sensitivities.

In light of these events, people may be forgiven for doubting the patriotism of many folks in Big Media.  And there's evidence that they should.  In his book Breaking the News:  How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows describes an episode of PBS's program, "Ethics in America," in which host Charles Ogletree asked leading journalists if they would allow American troops to be killed in order to get a story.  CBS correspondent Mike Wallace said yes, he'd go for the story, and denied any ethical conflict:  "You don't have a higher duty.  No.  No.  You're a reporter!"  After some hemming and hawing, Peter Jennings agreed.  Should American reporters worry about the death of American troops?  No -- their only loyalty is to the story.

This seems to be the spirit that's alive at Newsweek, with the added caveat that it doesn't even matter that much if the story is true.  And with this kind of pattern established, journalists shouldn't be surprised that so many Americans are questioning their patriotism -- to the extent that they feel there's any question left.

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