Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The United States of Apparatchiks

"Unless specifically authorized by the head of the agency, no rulemaking shall commence nor be included on the Plan without the approval of the agency's Regulatory Policy Office... ."
-- White House Executive Order, January 18, 2007
Now that Nazi Germany and Soviet communism have been defeated, George W. Bush wants to imitate them. Henceforth, he has ordered that every federal agency "must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee" to oversee and approve or disapprove "the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries."

In Hitler's Germany, such people were known as Gauleiters. In the former USSR they came to be called apparatchiks. Under the Chinese constitution they are referred to as "party leaders":
Supervision over leading organs of the Party and over Party members holding leading positions must be strengthened and the system of inner-Party supervision constantly improved.
* * *
Acting on the principle that the Party commands the overall situation and coordinates the efforts of all quarters, the Party must play the role as the core of leadership among all other organizations at the corresponding levels.
As in Germany and the U.S.S.R., for every governing office in China -- provincial governor, city mayor, local school superintendent, etc. -- there is a corresponding Communist Party Leader who is empowered, as Bush now wants to empower his newly-created "Regulatory Policy Officers" -- with a veto over any government activity deemed not in the best interests of the Party.

It's "a terrible way to govern, but great news for special interests,” says congressman Henry Waxman. It's also the anti-democratic way, as any number of fascist and communist regimes have shown us.

It also may be unconstitutional. Federal regulatory agencies are the creation of Congress, not the executive. They are answerable to Congress, not a president intent on promoting "an ideology of lawlessness."

DNA Test Kit on the Side, Sir?

Does she or doesn't she ... sweet tea or unsweetened ... paper or plastic? And now, grouper or ponga? Only your DNA testing service can be sure.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Little Boy Who Cried 'Truth'

Yesterday's Sunday Times carried a story by David E. Sanger describing how Bush administration war hawks are "discovering that both their words and their strategy are haunted by the echoes of four years ago — when their warnings of terrorist activity and nuclear ambitions were clearly a prelude to war. This time, they insist, it is different."

The article echoes much of Nicholas Lehman's observations in the current issue of the New Yorker, where he examines the underlying meaning of the ongoing Scooter Libby trial.

Both pieces come down to a modern-day repetition of the fairy tale about the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf -- with a twist. Says Sanger:
[A]s they present their evidence, some Bush administration officials concede they are confronting the bitter legacy of their prewar distortions of the intelligence in Iraq. When speaking under the condition of anonymity, they say the administration’s credibility has been deeply damaged, which would cast doubt on any attempt by Mr. Bush, for example, to back up his claim that Iran’s uranium enrichment program is intended for bomb production.
In the context of the Libby trial, Lehman writes:
What’s ultimately behind Libby’s trial is the Administration’s obsession with finding hard evidence for what it already believes.
* * *
The Administration has exhausted what was once an enormous stock of political capital by repeatedly insisting that it has uncovered the truth, and then being proved wrong. Right now, Iran, because of its size, wealth, military power, location, religious and civilian leadership, and ambitions, really is a serious threat — much more so than Iraq was four years ago. The United States’ ability to do anything about that threat has been severely degraded by the Iraq war. The damage is not so much military as epistemic: if nobody believes our accounts of threats, then we can’t assemble alliances to counteract them.

The Libby trial reveals a White House that thought its problems were with people who could not be counted on to confirm its suspicions, like Ambassador Wilson. It should have worried less about those who would speak truth to power, and worried more that power is no longer trusted to speak truth.
As Aesop said long ago, "There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth." Not to mention that whether Bush is 'speaking the truth' this time remains highly doubtful.

It may well not be a bomb Iran wants to build. It looks like it's a bank.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Dissing Charlie Crist

A number of newspapers (and more newspapers) and bloggers (and more bloggers), are all a-twitter over gossip that Florida governor Charlie Crist is the biological father of a teenaged girl born in Crist's home town 17 years ago. The girl was adopted long ago by a loving couple.

Now, Crist is refusing to cooperate with a DNA paternity test. The girl herself is willing, but neither she nor her parents are formally asking Crist to contribute his DNA. They just want to be left alone by the media.

Fat chance.

We're on the side -- if one can be found -- that says it's no one's business except the parents, the child, and the governor. If Crist fathered a child nearly two decades ago, it's hard to see what relevance that has to the discharge of his public duties. No more, we think, than whether Crist is a homosexual -- yet another rumor that has dogged the man for years.

In fact, it's even less relevant than the gay gossip. At least when it comes to a politician's sexual orientation, given the "social agenda" of so many political demagogues these days, there is some cause for concern about rank hypocrisy if he (or she) votes one way and privately couples another. No similar connection is apparent when it comes to a private affair that everyone involved wants to keep private.

The whole thing reminds us of a remark an uncle of ours made long ago when we were but a boy. Uncle Jim was for many years one of two national committeemen from Indiana, which meant he also served on the governing board of the National Republican Committee.

Uncle Jim was a huge, burly man with a gruff demeanor, a dry wit, and a warm heart that he struggled to hide from the world. He could pack away a quart of bourbon and a dozen eggs in a single late night sitting -- and often did.

On the day we're reminded of he had just returned from an NRC meeting in Washington, D.C. where strategies for an upcoming congressional election were discussed at length. Uncle Jim was particularly keen on trying to defeat the incumbent congressman in his home district, Democrat John Brademus. So, he said he'd spent most of his time in Washington trying to dig up dirt on Brademas.

"One rumor I heard is that he's sleeping with every other congressman's wife in Washington," Uncle Jim chuckled, "and the other is that he's sleeping with every other congressman. I can't decide which story to promote."

In the end, it didn't matter. Bradmas won reelection by a landslide. In fact, Brademas was a very good congressmen, so good in fact that his constituents never seemed to care much about his sex life. In that, they were exactly like our Uncle Jim.

"I don't really give a damn who Brademas sleeps with," Uncle Jim explained that day so long ago. "I just want to get his nose out of the public trough and put mine in its place."

No Surge Needed on Pensacola Beach

SRIA General Manager Buck Lee apparently patterns himself on George W. Bush. In an act as hubristic as it is ridiculous, he's given the Pensacola Beach governing authority a "State of the Island" speech that contains almost as many misstatements, obfuscations, significant omissions, and outright lies as Bush himself.

Out of twenty cited items, only four have actually been completed. Half of those -- Portofino's fifth tower and beach renourishment -- were started well before Lee was hired; he had nothing to do with them. Another is that "there were no drownings on Pensacola Beach in 2006." Happy news, to be sure, but just how much did Mr. Lee have to do with that?

All of the remaining fifteen items -- count 'em, 15! -- are "set for completion" or "should be complete" or "will be accomplished... in the next few years."

No need for a surge of troops, though. Mike Whitehead will be taking care of that through regime change.

Bush Claims Your Brain

Adam Liptak of the New York Times today files a news report on the U.S. Justice Department's perversions of our judicial system in defense of the Bush administration's unconstitutional wiretapping program.

"Kafkaesque" and "Alice in Wonderland" are two phrases some lawyers and federal judges give to the Government's actions. Even those words somehow seem woefully inadequate to the task.

Try to imagine you were wrongly arrested, your home and office were invaded, and all of your files were seized without a court warrant issued upon a showing of probable cause. Turns out it was a colossal screw-up, a case of mistaken identity. Homeland Security -- this is hard to imagine, we know, but do try -- had the wrong person.

You file a civil case in court seeking money damages and an injunction against future wrongful arrest, invasion of privacy, and violation of your constitutional rights. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez is on the other side.

The law's standard procedure of file-and-serve documents with the courts has existed since approximately 1164 A.D. when King Henry II promulgated the Constitutions of Clarendon, as it has been written, "to protect his subjects against powerful individuals who sought to intimidate in order to escape prosecution." So, you file your complaint in court and send a copy to the opposing party.

Imagine, in response, Mr. Gonzalez:
  • Refuses to file his responding legal papers in court.
  • Refuses to share copies of those papers with you.
  • Tells you -- and the court -- that he has "filed papers" with himself, but they can only be read if you come to his office.
  • When you or the judge comes to his office, he lets you see only part of his filings, blacks out the rest, forbids you from taking notes or making copies, and watches you the whole time.
  • When you file papers with the court objecting to this extra-legal procedure, Gonzalez then seizes your computer by threat of force and deletes all of your files from it at will, claiming "national security" as the reason.
  • When you file a challenge questioning his legal authority to do this, Gonzalez refuses to disclose to the court whether he a security clearance, "saying information about the clearance was itself classified."
  • When you nevertheless file another paper reciting what you recall about the few papers he let you read, Gonzalez then claims your memory belongs to the Government and you can't rely on it in any court filing without the Government's permission.
Oops! Now that you've read this, chances are the Bush administration's Justice Department soon will be knocking down your door to seize the computer you used to read about this. And they'll want your memory, too.

May as well comply. After all, what good will your brain do you when the only weapon Attorney General Gonzalez needs is your fear?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The 'Bono' of 2008

Who said this in September 2002 -- six months before Bush invaded Iraq?
"The chaos in the aftermath of a military victory in Iraq could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than we presently face from Saddam."
The man who won the presidency ... and yet may become president.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sinclair Reaches Secret Cable Deal

The mega media standoff between Sinclair Broadcasting and Mediacom continues the blackout on Pensacola Beach of local channel 3, the ABC affiliate. But this week, the aptly-named Sin-clair Broadcasting and megacorporation Time Warner reached agreement enabling TW's cable properties to retransmit Sinclair's broadcasting signals.

Neither side is saying whether, or how much, Time Warner will pay.

No similar compromise has yet been reached between Sinclair and Mediacom. But Mediacom executives are saying that whatever the details, they're willing to take, blind, the same deal from Sinclair that Time Warner now has.
Mediacom on Monday was awaiting a response from Sinclair on a proposal that Mediacom made on Sunday, asking Sinclair to give Mediacom the same deal that Sinclair negotiated last week with the much larger Time Warner cable system. Mediacom said it didn't know details of the Time Warner deal, but could make it work for Mediacom if it works for Time Warner.
As Pointer On-line says, wherever you live, even "if the fight has not come to your town, it probably will."

Murder in Miami

Jon Swift strikes again. A small taste:
Yesterday, former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt died mysteriously. He was only 88.
* * *
Although his family is making the unlikely claim that he died of pneumonia, this is no doubt a cover story they have come up with while investigators track down the conspirators behind his murder. There certainly are a number of unanswered questions about his death, which may never be resolved.
Treat yourself. Read the whole hilarious obit.

State Farm Settles Mississippi Katrina Claims

At last! The New York Times reports a significant "global settlement" has been forged for Mississippi customers of State Farm Insurance who suffered property damage during Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane struck the Gulf Coast in August, 2005, devastating almost the entire Gulf Coast.

Here are the details:
  • State Farm will make an initial payment of $80 million to settle 640 pending lawsuits.
  • Policy limits, or the fully insured value, will be paid to 300 homeowners whose houses were "swept away."
  • "The owners of the 340 other homes, with varying degrees of damage, are to receive an average of $124,400."
  • "At least" $50 million more will be paid to those among the 35,000 other State Farm customers whose claims were previously closed.
  • That sum will increase to an estimated "$200 million to $600 million" depending on how many of the 35,000 customers make new requests to reopen their claims.
  • Homeowners whose claims are reopened "may accept a new offer from State Farm or insist on binding arbitration."
  • Any insured customer remains free to "ignore the settlement and file separate lawsuits against State Farm."
As for non-State Farm customers, unnamed "insurance executives" are telling the Times they anticipate other Mississippi insurance companies will agree to similar deals with their own customers. A State Farm mouthpiece from Philadelphia told the Times his client agreed to the settlement to "remove a major public relations headache."
Randy J. Maniloff, a lawyer at White & Williams in Philadelphia who represents insurance companies, said yesterday that it was clear that the bad publicity had been a big factor in State Farm’s decision to settle. "They spent 80 years building up a brand," he said, "and the adverse publicity from these lawsuits has been clearly doing damage to the brand. It just flies in the face of their portrayal of themselves as good neighbors."
Branding and the rotten reputation of State Farm aside, it's clear that the insurance company was motivated by something more -- namely, the fear of facing juries eager to mete out justice.

Two weeks ago, a Mississippi jury considered the first Katrina claim to get to trial and awarded policy limits of $232,292 in actual damages plus $2.5 million in punitive damages for the insurer's bad faith in rejecting a hurricane claim. Earlier this week, State Farm agreed to settle the second Katrina case headed for a jury trial by paying an estimated $1 million.

Ironically, one of the beneficiaries of the "global settlement" will be U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R-Ms.), a frequent critic of plaintiff's lawyers and class actions. Lott is the brother in law of Mississippi plaintiff's lawyer Dickie Scruggs, who was the principle driving force behind the first two jury trials as well as the 'global settlement' reached yesterday.

The Mississippi agreement has no binding legal effect on pending insurance claims elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, including Northwest Florida , Alabama, and Louisiana. Each state's insurance laws -- and courts -- differ. Even so, the Mississippi settlement establishes what could be considered the "market value" of a Katrina claim, bringing added pressure on insurers in other states to emulate it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bon Mots

blog based in Florida, Candide's Notebook, tossed off quite a number of bon mots. They have the look of something he must have been saving for a rainy day. But they're thought-provoking, nonetheless.

Chazelle, we are told, is a Princeton University computer science professor. And, a handsome one at that, to judge from the photo on his personal blog here.

Available for free at Candide's Notebook are these sure-fire conversation stoppers for your next dinner party, bar mitzvah, or bowling league night:

On Cheney: "Big-Time Dick saluted the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 by persuading his boss to invade Panama (for reasons no one seems able to remember). And today it is anybody's guess which Caribbean island the United States will invade to celebrate its victory in Iraq."

On George W. Bush: "In January of 2001, George W. Bush took — er, grabbed — the reins of an American Empire at its zenith. He will soon hand back a smoldering wreckage of broken lives, enduring hatred, and vanished influence."

On Bush's father: "At a recent ceremony for his son Jeb, George H. W. Bush was caught on national television sobbing uncontrollably. Pity the man who stands one short letter away from the worst president in US history. The letter is H, as in H for hubris."

On what we have become since 9-11: "Historians will ponder how one gangly caveman and nineteen scrawny associates turned America into the land of the kind-of-free (53rd freest press in the world, tied with Botswana) and the home of the petrified. The sons and daughters of the nation that stood up to Hitler and Tojo now file through airport security barefoot, much as they would walk, shoeless, into a mosque -- a mosque, they pray, empty of Muslims."

On shallow-minded pundits like Thomas Friedman and Richard Cohen: To talk the neocolonial talk from the plush comfort of the imperial capital is easy. To walk the walk is not."

On U.S. military expenditures: "US military expenditures exceed those of all nations on earth combined. And yet battling a ragtag band of lightly armed insurgents was more than the world's mightiest army could take."

On Iraq War expenditures: "The war effort's claim on the US treasury will soon exceed $600 billion: more than Vietnam; (4) more than all the money ever spent on cancer research; (8) more than enough to “race for the cure” all the way to Alpha Centauri."

On casting blame: "The grand whining parade has already begun, and mealy-mouthed apologists are being wheeled in on bloated floats to proffer lame excuses about inadequate troop levels, insufficient 4GW training, political fecklessness, etc. Eventually, the chest beating will die down as it always does, with the blame for the debacle pinned on the dirty antiwar hippies.

On America's neo-colonial ambitions: "Could the invasion have succeeded? Not a chance. * * * Leave aside the not-so-trifling fact that the United States never had the proper DNA for empire (lite or otherwise). It is the incontrovertible reality of the 21st century that the time for the White Man's Burden has passed."

On the mainstream media: "Tragically, the media has failed in its sacred duty to keep a vigilant, skeptical, critical eye on the centers of power. *** The sycophantic enablers of the Fourth Estate have blood on their hands."

(More) on George W. Bush: " No American leader has so much owned a war. And none has so little owned up to it. *** The die has been cast and the hour is too late for him or anyone to alter the unforgiving judgment of posterity. "

Our Quandry: "[I]f freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, then Bush is a free man — free to pursue the most malignant policies, heedless of the consequences to his unworsenable presidential standing. Beware the desperation of a cornered man."

There is more -- here.

'Panhandle Exemption' Eliminated

According to the latest publicly-available official summary of the special legislative session's hurricane handiwork, the notorious 'Panhandle Exemption' to the statewide building code has been eliminated. At last!

The new bill --
Requires the Florida Building Commission to eliminate all exceptions in the Florida Building Code related to wind-borne-debris protection per the requirements of Section 15 of SB 4-A. Commission shall fulfill obligation before July 1, 2007.
The exemption was the bastard spawn of former state senator Charlie Clary (R-Destin). It never made sense to anyone but builders-on-the-cheap and pols on the make for their money. Over the years before he was term-limited, Clary was paid-off handsomely for his tender treatment.

The New York Times' Abby Goodnough has a readable rundown on the rest of the bill. As Rep. Susan Bucher says, overall what the bill represents is mostly "cosmetic surgery" when what Florida really needs is "heart surgery."

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Impeach Beach

Well, sure, it isn't the '70s. Still, impeachment, you might say, is a rising tide. The Christian Science Monitor captures the latest ebb-and-flow of public protest:

On Auction: Impeachbush.com

Saturday Satire

Jon Swift swift-boats the swift-boaters. Here's a taste:
The media's job is to raise important questions about the candidates not provide simplistic answers. The American people can provide the simplistic answers on their own. So far the media has raised a lot of important questions about Barack Obama. Who is Barack Obama? Why is his middle name Hussein? Is he secretly a Muslim? Does he smoke? Does he work out? What is he wearing? If he were a tree, what kind of a tree would he be?

No one knows very much about Barack Obama. He has written only two books, which no one has ever read, and given very few interviews. Newsweek's Howard Fineman, in his remarkably insightful column comparing the Presidential race to a high school election, calls him the Mysterious Newcomer. "Presidential elections are high school writ large," says Fineman (his use of the word "writ" cluing you in to the seriousness of his metaphor; Pulitzer Prize judges, take note). As everyone knows about high school elections, the candidates with the least amount of gossip about them wins.

The mainstream media, which increasingly is taking cues from bloggers and chain emails, has begun to jump on the story of Obama's secret Muslim identity. Insight Magazine, which is owned by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, a religion that is not trying to take over the United States, as far as we know, has raised more suspicions that Obama is secretly a Muslim and attended a madrassa when he was young. It has also accused Hillary Clinton's campaign of trying to plant those rumors by quoting unnamed campaign "sources," which as any journalist knows are the most reliable sources of all. With this story Insight cleverly made two candidates look bad, Obama and Clinton, without having to actually prove anything.

Unfortunately, many members of the mainstream media are still operating under the old rules of journalism, which requires two unnamed sources with axes to grind before a story can be printed.
There's more... a lot more ... and the chuckles are worth it. But if you want to know what Barack Obama really said in his autobiography about his 'Muslim' experience check this out -- and then ask yourself, "Why would anyone with so much as half a brain watch Fox News?

Which brings us to Leonard Pitts' latest. The Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Miami Herald asks "President Obama?" Unsurprisingly, he sees the larger obstacles as "race and culture."

While mainstream media have seemed intrigued by, but not obsessed with, the senator's heritage, the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the extreme right blogosphere. There, one seldom reads any reference to Obama that does not make reference to his middle name: Hussein. Then there are those who observe that only a single consonant separates his surname from the first name of the al Qaeda leader who launched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It is such nakedly puerile slander that your first response is to laugh. Then you remember how that same blogosphere managed to turn the war hero John Kerry into a ''traitor'' and the Texas Air National Guardsman, George W. Bush, into a war hero -- and it seems much less funny.

The normally sensible Mr. Pitts missed it here. As Jon Swift's satire shows, it isn't just the "extreme right blogosphere" that's behind such "puerile slanders." It's the mainstream media, to its shame. Media like Newsweek Magazine, Fox News, CNN, and Moonie-owned publications like Insight Magazine and the Washington Times.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Two Dinosaurs in Local News

Local radio Friday afternoon was reporting that Dr. Dino, more formally known as Kent Hovind, was sentenced today to ten years in the poky. Hovind was convicted late last year on 58 felony and misdemeamor counts related to tax evasion. His wife's sentencing has been delayed.

(UPDATE: Michael Stewart has the quick story and, a day later, the full story at the PNJ.)

Hovind made a small fortune himself -- or, if you still believe in fairy tales, for god -- by preaching that dinosaurs cohabited the earth with mankind. The root of his problem seems to be that god forgot to file his income tax returns and so the IRS turned to Hovind, instead.

Maybe Hovind was right about one thing. At least one dinosaur coexists with mankind: Tom Banjanin, former county commissioner for the district that includes Pensacola Beach.

Banjanin announced today that he will be a candidate to nuzzle up to whatever public feeding trough he can manage to fool somebody into giving him. Today, it's the special election to fill state House District 3, recently vacated by Holly Benson after she was named head of Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Before making a career of getting paid to do nothing as a county commissioner, Banjanin learned his trade as a state representative, where he also did nothing. So, you can certainly say he has experience.

Republican voters will have their second chance in four months to vote against the insipid Banjanin when early voting begins January 29.

Burgess 'Sinked' Out of Advocate Job

Steve Burgess will be leaving his job as Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate at the end of the month, the Palm Beach Post is reporting.
Steve Burgess said he was told last month his services were no longer needed by newly elected Chief Financial Office Alex Sink. He said Sink asked him to stay until the end of January, after the legislature concludes its special session on property insurance.
* * *
Tara Klimek, a spokesman for Sink, said the CFO wanted her own pick for the job and was searching for the right person. She would not provide specifics of the search or say how long it would take. She said Burgess' staff of seven, which includes an actuary, would continue its work without a department head while the search is under way.

According to the Post Burgess and Sink are both Democrats, but Burgess isn't 'taking it personally.'

Shell Game

As we said yesterday, it's no time for high-fiving over the seeming appearance that the Bush administration has at last agreed to abide by the Constitution and will cease wiretapping American citizens without a court order. Adam Liptak of the New York Times tells us why in more detail:
On Wednesday, the administration announced that an unnamed judge on the secret court, in a nonadversarial proceeding that apparently cannot be appealed, had issued orders that apparently both granted surveillance requests and set out some ground rules for how such requests would be handled.

The details remained sketchy yesterday, but critics of the administration said they suspected that one goal of the new arrangements was to derail lawsuits challenging the program in conventional federal courts.

“It’s another clear example,” said Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, “of the government playing a shell game to avoid accountability and judicial scrutiny.”
Adding to suspicions is the fact that the administration hasn't agreed to release the FISA court order which Attorney General Gonzalez cited shortly before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, even though the FISA court says it would have no objection. Gonzalez' answer to the bi-partisan demand for a copy of the order?
"That's a decision that I would like to take back to my principal."
Whoa! As Attorney General, Gonzalez' "principal" is the American public.

Florida's own Pierre Tristam, writing in his daily Candide's Notebooks, has more.
The notion that the administration will continue to spy on Americans and foreigners as zealously as it has since 2001 isn’t a matter of cynicism, it isn’t a conclusion arrived at by mistrust, but by the logic of the administration’s own precedents and public pronouncements.
There's only one thing to add: can't you see that same grotesque fealty to ideology leading, if it hasn't already, to an administrative "out-sourcing" of the wiretap program? Privatizing the NSA spying program on Americans to a corporate 'partner', and thus removing it from the purview of all branches of government before the 2008 elections, would be so like the Bush Administration.

Anyone care to guess who would pick up the contract?

One thing seems certain, as Media Matters documents. The vast majority of journalists covering the NSA wiretapping story have been fooled into losing track of the pea beneath the shell.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Art Buchwald - The Right Way To Go

Art Buchwald has died -- on his terms. Ed O'Keefe of ABC News has the details.

No 'High Fives' Yet

Wapo prominently reports today that the Bush administration has announced "it has agreed to disband a controversial warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency, replacing it with a new effort that will be overseen by the secret court that governs clandestine spying in the United States."

Before you reach out to high-five someone over how wonderful it is that George W. Bush has at last agreed to comply with the U.S. Constitution, be warned by past experience: this administration cannot be trusted. You may lose more than your fingers.

Republicans know it as well as Democrats. Check this out, from the New York Times:
The administration said it had briefed the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees in closed sessions on its decision.

But Representative Heather A. Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, who serves on the Intelligence committee, disputed that, and some Congressional aides said staff members were briefed Friday without lawmakers present.

Ms. Wilson, who has scrutinized the program for the last year, said she believed the new approach relied on a blanket, “programmatic” approval of the president’s surveillance program, rather than approval of individual warrants.

Administration officials “have convinced a single judge in a secret session, in a nonadversarial session, to issue a [secret] court order to cover the president’s terrorism surveillance program,” Ms. Wilson said in a telephone interview. She said Congress needed to investigate further to determine how the program is run.

Democrats have pledged to investigate the N.S.A. program and other counterterrorism programs they say may rely on excessive presidential authority. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York said the announcement appeared to be intended in part to head off criticism Mr. Gonzales was likely to face at Thursday’s judiciary committee hearing.

“I don’t think the timing is coincidental,” Mr. Schumer said in a telephone interview. “They knew they had a very real problem, and they’re trying to deflect it.”
The reliable Glenn Greenwald has reduced the matter to its essence:
[U]ltimately, there are only two options -- (1) the administration is now complying fully and exclusively with FISA when eavesdropping, in which case all of its prior claims that it could not do so and still fight against The Terrorists are false, or (2) the administration has changed its eavesdropping program some, but it is still not fully complying with FISA, in which case nothing of significance has changed (at least on the lawbreaking issues) because the administration is still violating the law.

The FISA court and the administration cannot reach an agreement for proceeding that deviates from the FISA law itself. So it is only one or the other of the two options, neither of which reflect well on the administration.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

D-Minus Clown Smirks Through Class

Someone by the name of Bob Ceska at the Huffington Post remarked the other day that on Sunday's "60 Minutes" interview, George W. Bush engaged in a lot of 'grinning' ... 'laughing' ... and "smirking and smiling" while discussing the "deadly serious" topic of Iraq.

He did it again last night on Jim Lehrer's News Hour.

As we watched, it seemed to us we'd seen such a performance before. After a moment's thought it hit us: some years ago, we saw a brilliant college professor unexpectedly call on the notorious class cut-up, a brash and brutish guy who never did his homework and always cheated on exams.

The prof grilled the class clown relentlessly, asking hard questions and following up with even harder ones. The clown responded with bad jokes, knowing smirks, nervous laughter, and nonsense answers that made it evident he didn't have a clue about the subject or the grace to admit it. He played the fool to what he misapprehended was his audience of student fans. No one else laughed. We were too embarrassed -- for him, for us, for the professor, for the human race.

Digby has an example in his preliminary analysis. And another in a follow-up.

Back then in school, and again this week with Bush, it was deeply embarrassing to witness the class clowns' repellent performance. With Bush, though, there was something more, something very disturbing: the knowledge that unlike the first time, clueless George W. Bush isn't trying to put one over on the teacher and then har-har-har his way down the hall after class.

He's hardy-har-harring past tens of thousands of dead and soon-to-be dead soldiers and civilians -- not to mention the entire nation.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Obama Index

Today, Illinois freshman senator Barack Obama formally announced he has created an exploratory committee "to raise money and begin building a campaign designed to 'change our politics,' the New York Times reports. As John Whitesides of Reuters News Service puts it, the announcement means Sen. Obama has "jumped into the 2008 White House race" for president.

In a sign of the times, Obama 's statement was released only on his web site. A video of the erudite senators reading his statement is also available here.

According to Whiteside, Senator Obama "plans a formal campaign announcement in his hometown of Chicago on February 10."
Obama, who gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention before he was even elected to the U.S. Senate, appeared on a Time magazine cover and drew big crowds while campaigning for Democrats last fall.

His visit to the early primary state of New Hampshire in December drew sold-out crowds and more than 150 journalists.

But the first-term senator also has been dogged by questions about his lack of experience and about whether the United States is ready to elect a black to the White House.

In his statement, Obama said he was struck by the hunger around the country for "a different kind of politics" and that decisions in Washington over the last six years of Republican leadership have put the country "in a precarious place."

"Our continued dependence on oil has put our security and our very planet at risk. And we're still mired in a tragic and costly war that should have never been waged," said Obama, an opponent of the invasion of Iraq.

"But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics," he said.

Obama's quick rise has been fuelled in part by his smooth campaign style and unusual personal history. The son of a white Kansas-born mother and a black Kenyan father, the Harvard Law School graduate and little known state legislator in Illinois won the U.S. Senate seat in 2004 against a stand-in opponent.

What's that Reuters says? "Lack of experience?" "Little known?"

Reminds us of another young author who went on to bigger things. As Whiteside notes, Obama "has written two best-selling books and won a Grammy Award for his spoken word recording of his autobiography, 'Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.'"

The thing is, Obama really wrote his own autobiography. By himself! It was originally written shortly after he graduated from Harvard Law School, where he held the prestigious position of Editor of the Law Review -- something that doesn't happen to people in that highly competitive environment if they're incompetent, dyslexic fools who can only read a teleprompter.

Fancy that! The U.S. actually has a chance to elect as president someone who writes books as well as reads them. Practically a modern-era first for America.

The field of '08 presidential wannabes, both Democratic and Republican, already is crowded. It's likely to become only more so in the coming weeks. We can't keep up with all the polls coming out, so we've decided to monitor the progress of Barack Obama's campaign by checking in from time to time on our personal "Barack Obama Index" -- the going price for a first edition of Barack Obama's first book.

Dreams from My Father is now in reprint, both as a newly-issued hardbound ($25.95) and as a (revised) paperback edition ($14.95). Even the most recent edition of his second book -- a more obvious politically inspired effort -- is selling out quickly. Autographed copies are being offered on Ebay for as much as $84 and up.

Our own index, however, consists of hard-to-find First Editions of the senator's first book. Wikipedia identifies it as having been published by Crown on July 18, 1995 in hardcover with ISBN No. 0-8129-2343-X and edition ID number 98765432. If memory serves, the initial printing consisted of only 5,000 copies.

Some pretty large bets are being placed on the future value of that first edition. Alibris currently has a first edition = $ 879.94. Biblio.com lists one at $ 823.99. And an autographed first edition (via AbeBooks) can be had for $ 2,500.00.

How much more will a first edition fetch if Obama gets the nomination and wins the 2008 presidential election? We don't have a clue, but it'll be a lot more than "A Charge to Keep," the first edition of the earliest book that bears George W. Bush's name as the alleged author. (In fact, Mickey Herskowitz was the ghost-writer of Bush's supposed 'autobiography.')

According to Alibris, you can pick up one of those for as little as $2.95 and as much as $7.95. On Ebay right now, you might be able to snag one for 99 cents.

Anyone who buys it is still over-paying, if you ask us.

Dept. of Amplification

November 3, 2008: The Obama Index - Updated

Friday, January 12, 2007

Allen Levin, Dead at 62

Pensacola native Allen Levin died today of a heart attack. He was 62.

More later below.

Allen Richard Levin, age 62 of Pensacola, passed away Friday morning, January 12, 2007. Born in Pensacola, he was one of six sons of Abe and Rose Levin. Brothers Martin and David predeceased Allen, as did Allen's parents.

Allen was diagnosed with lung cancer in November, 2005, and in the spring of 2006, was given a few months to live. However, he received a double lung transplant at the University of Pittsburgh and was cancer free when he died at Baptist Hospital of a heart attack.

Allen was a devoted husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend. He leaves a loving wife, Teri, who during these trying times, was his health advocate and took incredible care of his needs. In addition, he leaves children, Evan Levin and his wife, Windy, and their daughter, Ella Rose, and his son, Andrew Rothfeder, his wife, Sara, and their three children, Austin, Cassidy and Hunter. He also leaves brothers Herman of Boca Raton, and Fredric and Stanley of Pensacola.

Allen was a graduate of Pensacola High School and the University of Florida. He was one of the largest and most successful condominium developers on the Gulf Coast. In addition to a number of commercial buildings that he developed in the Pensacola area, he was the prime developer on Pensacola Beach of Tristan Tower, Verandas, Emerald Isle and the five towers of Portofino. At the present time he, along with his long-time development partner Robert Rinke and Allen's sons, Andrew and Evan, were developing the Beach Club, one of the finest resort condominiums in the state of Florida.

Allen made substantial contributions to various charities throughout Florida and in addition, as part of his developments on Pensacola Beach, insisted on substantial beautification of the island, much of which will be accomplished over the next few years.

Allen's desires were for a private ceremony for family, at which his nephew Martin Levin and his dear friend Mark Proctor will give the eulogy. The family will celebrate his life with a memorial service at a later date.

The family would like to thank his health care providers and especially Dr. Alex Inclan, Dr. Bob Harbour and Dr. Jeff Buchalter for their loving care. In lieu of flowers, the family would suggest that charitable contributions be made to United Way or Gulf Coast Kids House.

Published in the Pensacola News Journal on 1/13/2007.

"The one word I can think of to describe Allen was 'class,' " Fred Levin said. "He was just a class act."

Longtime friend and Pensacola developer Jim Cronley said Mr. Levin possessed an especially engaging and warm personality.
* * *
"I don't normally use the term 'sweetheart' to describe another man, but that's what Allen was," Cronley said.

"And he was very decent person. You can't be in business and not have some misunderstandings from time to time. But I don't know anybody who did business with him who didn't like him."

Cable Wars Continue

The greed dispute between Sinclair Broadcasting and Mediacom continues. It's already a national story. Soon, it may widen to other cable companies around the nation.

We've already explained the source of the dispute here. Essentially, what Mediacom cable viewers are experiencing is the bitter fruit of several decades of FCC and Justice Department policies that gave a green light to increased concentration of media outlets into the hands of fewer and fewer mega-corporations until each has acquired monopoly market power.

Broadcasters like Sinclair and cable companies like Mediacom aren't fighting over their own money; they are scavengers fighting over who gets how much of the carcass -- and the carcass is you.

Cable subscribers on Pensacola Beach, in Gulf Breeze, and in select beach areas to the west are missing out on ABC-TV network programs and the WEAR-TV (Channel 3) advertising fest that masquerades as broadcast news. Local channel 3 almost certainly is taking a large hit in advertising revenues. Cable penetration here is broad and deep. Since Sinclair cannot be assured that anyone in his right mind would go out of his way to watch Pensacola's only local network affiliate, stories abound that advertisers are bailing out on Sinclair or insisting on steeply reduced rates.

Most cable subscribers seem to get at least this much, as expressed by a Scott Obenour of the Zanesville (Oh) Farmers-Advance:
It appears to me that Sinclair Broadcasting Group is trying to double dip the public. Not only are they charging businesses for advertising on their networks; they want to charge the cable companies to send their channels on the cable system. This in turn, will increase cable bills.
(We pause to observe that, quite possibly, Mr. Obenour was writing, instead, to the "Zanesville, Ohio, Times-Recorder" or to "Camden Publications" in Michigan -- it's hard to tell since all these "local" newspapers are owned by Gannett Publications, which itself is an oligopoly.)

Yesterday, so the Des Moines Register reported (another Gannett-owned publication), "Sinclair rejected a plea today from Iowa’s congressional delegation that Sinclair’s dispute with the Mediacom cable TV be submitted to binding arbitration for settlement." Wrote Sinclair CEO David D. Smith to the congressional delegation:
"I hope you can understand Sinclair's reluctance to agree to such an unusual approach to resolve what is essentially a disagreement on price in a commercial negotiation."
Smith is flat-out lying. Binding arbitration is not "unusual." Indeed, it was first suggested by the FCC over a month ago. It is, in fact, a common means for resolving business disputes at all levels, from customer service to business-against-business contract disputes, both within the regulated communications industry and elsewhere.

What's really afoot is that Sinclair doesn't really want a settlement with Mediacom. It is angling to try the same strong-arm tactics against much larger cable systems. Initially, Sinclair Broadcasting picked on Mediacom, hoping to establish a price precedent they might then use to extort money from larger cable companies. By standing its ground and delaying decision day, Mediacom hoped to shift the burden of dealing with the outlaw Sinclair Broadcasting corporation to another mega-corporation such as Time-Warner or Comcast.

Time-Warner's "must carry" contract with Sinclair expires today. Comcast's contract expires Febuary 5.

But now the television networks themselves are trying to horn in on the action. Marketwatch reports that CBS president Leslie Moonves told Citigroup institutional investors earlier this week that by charging cable companies directly for network programs he expects by 2009 CBS will see "hundreds of millions" added to its bottom line. That would be in addition to the "hundred million" Sinclair's CEO told his investors he expects new fees to generate.

The network's tactic apparently is the same one Sinclair pioneered: pick on the little guys first, then climb the ladder to larger cable providers.
"We're also currently in negotiations with three of the smaller cable groups," said Moonves.
A hundred million here, a hundred million there... pretty soon, you're talking real money.

Inevitably, as we have said, the consumer will be the loser. Cable rates are sure to skyrocket. At best, we can hope the FCC modifies or eliminates the "must carry" and "re-transmission" rules to relieve cable companies of the unfair bargaining position they're in. At worst, it seems to us, cable companies eventually will have to re-configure their current "channel bundling" approach and move toward a true cafeteria plan where cable subscribers can pick and choose which channels they want to receive.

But don't hold your breath. Neither the FCC nor Congress shows any inclination to even the playing field they've tilted against cable companies. As long as the networks and broadcast monopolies like Sinclair continue to eye the cable consumer's flesh, looking for an extra meal to add to their bottom line, you can be sure cable television won't be getting any cheaper -- or better.

From a much broader perspective, all of this might be good. When cable gets too expensive and broadcast stations all descend to the miserable quality of Sinclair's properties, at long last Americans may revert to reading books for their entertainment and edification.

Dept. of Amplification
Jan. 16

In the pages of the Des Moines Register, Journalism professor Janet Hill Keefer analyzes the Sinclair-Mediacom dispute much as we do:
So how did we end up in this sorry state? In 2004, Congress effectively removed the ceiling on how many TV stations one owner could acquire nationally. * * * Sinclair now owns 58 TV stations that reach, the company claims, 22 percent of the U.S. population. Revenue from 58 stations allows Sinclair to go dark on cable systems here and there for the short term while arranging for big payoffs in the long term.
* * *
What Congress gives it can also take away. We should insist that the new Congress review Sinclair's extortionate behavior in Des Moines and other similar attempts by broadcasters to "double dip" in local TV markets. The change Congress made in ownership rules allowed big station groups with distant management to insulate themselves almost completely from any kind of accountability to viewers and the communities in which they live.

It's time to restore that accountability by dusting off the "public interest, convenience and necessity" clause in the Telecommunications Act to measure over-the-air, satellite and cable-TV service.

Iraq War: Quote of the Week

Zbigniew Brzezinski, News Hour, Jan. 11, 2007:
[T]he problem is not only military, not only political, it's also historical. There is such a thing as historical relevance.

The fact is, the American effort in Iraq is essentially a colonial effort. We're waging a colonial war. We live in the post-colonial era. This war cannot be won because it is simply out of sync with historical times.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Has the Secret War Started?

... according to Steve Clemons:
Washington intelligence, military and foreign policy circles are abuzz today with speculation that the President, yesterday or in recent days, sent a secret Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director of the CIA to launch military operations against Syria and Iran.

The President may have started a new secret, informal war against Syria and Iran without the consent of Congress or any broad discussion with the country.
Sound vaguely familiar? Univ. of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin thinks so:
the ...only... time that felt like this: when Nixon was in the last weeks of his Presidency, and people -- including the then-Secretary of Defense -- got worried that Nixon might try to start a war to distract the country from his troubles, or even stage some sort of coup. People in DC even began to speculate as to what military forces could be assembled as a counterweight in the event that Nixon, rumored to be drunk and unstable, chose to subvert the Constitution.

Bush's Surge Onto Iran?

There's little new that hasn't already been said about George W. Bush's speech to the nation last night concerning Iraq. As BarbinMD at Daily Kos points out (with links):
In the end, last night's speech was the same thing that George Bush has been saying for nearly four years. The only changes between the speech last night and the one in October is the additional 207 dead servicemen and women and Bush not saying:
"Absolutely, we're winning."
That and the announcement of his next pre-emptive war...
The fact Bush essentially said "the same thing" last night that he's being saying for years probably explains why NPR's "Morning Edition" host, Steve Inskeep, extemporized in a mid- morning intro to another story that "a lot of people are, well, laughing at Bush." You're not likely to catch NPR archiving that remark, but it came as he was introducing a report on this morning's Rice-Gates press conference.

While marshaling some recent evidence, also with links, Glenn Greenwald is less circumspect than Kos' BarbinMD or Inskeep:
I think there is a tendency to dismiss the possibility of some type of war with Iran because it is so transparently destructive and detached from reality that it seems unfathomable. But if there is one lesson that everyone should have learned over the last six years, it is that there is no action too extreme or detached from reality to be placed off limits to this administration. The President is a True Believer and the moral imperative of his crusade trumps the constraints of reality.
Greenwald wrote this before news reached the West that "US soldiers raided Iranian government offices in the Iraqi city of Irbil today, hours after George Bush pledged to 'seek out and destroy' Iran's networks in Iraq. " Attacking a foreign consulate and kidnapping their personnel is an act of war. You may remember our outrage when Iran did something similar to us in 1979.

To add to the list of ominous signs and signals, Condoleeza Rice will be touring the Middle East beginning the end of this week. Her ostensible purpose, according to the State Department spokesman who made the announcement a few days ago, is to seize an "opportunity... to make progress on the issue of a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security."

Trouble is, there is no such "opening" visible to anyone else, as veteran Middle East war correspondent Nick Burns pointed out at the same press conference:
What perplexes some people is why there would be a moment of opportunity when there is no consensus among the Palestinians about going forth with negotiations with the Israelis. Prime Minister Abbas you described as a partner for peace, but he doesn't lead the government, he doesn't even control much of the territory, witness the fact that the U.S. Government is devoting significant time and money to helping arm his forces.

So why is there -- why do you feel there's a significant opportunity here when at least on one side of the equation, the Palestinian side, there simply isn't consensus on peace, let alone a single authority who controls the territory you can negotiate with?
Coincidentally -- if you believe in coincidences -- newly confirmed Defense Department Secretary Robert Gates will be touring the Middle East at the same time as Rice; then the two of them will huddle in "an extraordinary meeting of NATO foreign ministers" on January 28.

Equally disturbing, the U.S. now has at least two carrier groups in the Middle East, well within striking distance of Iran. Noting this, Prof. Michael Klare wrote late last week:
The recent replacement of General Abizaid by Admiral Fallon, along with other recent moves announced by the Defense Secretary, should give deep pause to anyone concerned about the prospect of escalation in the Iraq War. Contrary to the advice given by the Iraq Study Group, Bush appears to be planning for a wider war -- with much higher risk of catastrophic failure -- not a gradual and dignified withdrawal from the region.
As Robert Perry notes:

The choice of Fallon makes more sense if Bush foresees a bigger role for two aircraft carrier groups now poised off Iran’s coastline, such as support for possible Israeli air strikes against Iran’s nuclear targets or as a deterrent against any overt Iranian retaliation.

So. We have Bush uttering a direct threat against Iran last night... an act of war committed against Iran a few hours later... a huge U.S. Navy flotilla armed with nuclear weapons gathering in the immediate vicinity of Iran... the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense simultaneously calling on multiple Arab allies and neutrals in the Middle East... following which they attend "an extraordinary gathering" of NATO ministers at the end of the month.

'Real History Lisa' ticks off yet more warnings by "a CIA-friendly reporter, a former UN Weapons Inspector, a former CIA employee, and a former Navy Commander" to set up the question, "Are we going to war with Iran soon?"

When we put that very question yesterday to a knowledgeable military friend just back from exotic foreign climes, he said he "hoped" Bush wasn't that stupid or crazy.

But he just might be. As Greenwald says this morning:
For all the pious talk about the need to be "seriously concerned" and give "thoughtful consideration" to what will happen if we leave Iraq, there is a very compelling -- and neglected -- need to ponder what will happen if we stay and if we escalate. And the need for "serious concern" and "thoughtful consideration" extends to consequences not just in Iraq but beyond.

Amplification Dept.

In the comments section below, readers will find a link to an audio clip containing the remarks of NPR "Morning Edition" co-host Steve Inskeep, mentioned above. Here is a quick, home-made transcript--
[Inskeep]: I'm going to bring another voice into the conversation. That's NPR's Guy Raz who covers the military. And, Guy, have you learned anything more about what the additional troops will be doing once they get to Iraq?
[Raz]: Well, we understand clearly from Secetary Gates' comments just a few moments ago that he's not even sure how long this deployment will last. Ah, he was asked if this deployment was temporary and how long it'll take and he essentially said, "I don't know."
* * *
[Inskeep]: And elsewhere on this program today, Guy, we've heard NPR's Martin Kaste report on the response to this speech and you heard people, or rather military base [sic] guffawing, almost laughing at the president's speech last night. Little bit of cynicism there."
[Raz]: Yeah, I think so. And I think in part because the president really didn't indicate whether the Army will, uh, will be able to draw upon the Guard and the Reserves to the extent the Arm... ah, senior Army officers have asked to do so.
Meanwhile, this morning Condoleeza Rice continued the Bush administration's refusal to talk with Iran unless it first suspends enrichment of uranium activities.

Further Amplification Dept.

Inspired by Dan Froomkin's declaration of "open season on alternative explanations" for Bush's "new proposal" -- which "is so internally contradictory, so incremental, so problematically dependent on Iraqi good behavior, and so unlikely to galvanize public support" -- Moon Over Alabama also thought he heard last night, "Bush's "incoherent plans to attack Iran."
Will this attack happen? I do not know. But the results of such an attack would be even more devastating to all parties than the results of the attack on Iraq have been.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Looking Backward

A few hours before George W. Bush plans to slap new lipstick on the old pig of his Iraq war policy, the White House released an 11-page Power Point-style summary [warning: pdf file] for the consumption of gullible journalists. One chart (page 7) is titled "Then and Now."

It bears the imprimatur of the NSA, but actually looks like the creation of some White House PR flunky. Still, the chart inspires an interesting mind game.

Let's call it "Looking Backward" (with apologies to Edward Bellamy's shade.)

Pretend you have just awakened to discover you are the Head of the Free World. It is, say January, 2003.

Suppose the following chart were handed to you along with a proposal from the Vice-President to invade Iraq. Instead of "Then" and "Now" the columns are labeled "Pro" and "Con." (Accept for purposes of the game that there actually was some sort of 'insurgency' in January 2003, as asserted at the top of the "Pro" column.)

After reviewing the "pros and "cons" of war, how would you have decided? Cooperate with Hans Blix or order him to pull out the weapons inspectors because you feel like starting a war?

Mike Whitehead - Still Stupid?

It seems Escambia County Commissioner Mike Whitehead finds himself on the south side of law and ethics once again. This time, he tried to buy for $65,000 a county-owned house and one acre lot in nearby Beulah with an assessed value of $83,490 -- and a market value, you can be sure, well above that.

County commissioners (including Whitehead) voted on December 7 to auction the property off through sealed bids. The agenda item [# 12] can be seen here. That same month, Whitehead submitted his winning bid.

The almost-done deal "came to light when Whitehead's signature was noted on a check" by an assistant in the office of County Clerk and Comptroller Ernie Magaha.
[I]n a letter to County Commission Chairman Kevin White, the clerk's office cited Florida law governing standards of conduct for public officials and state Ethics Commission opinions that call such property transactions a conflict of interest.

"Upon advice of our legal counsel, we must advise you that the Clerk of Court and Comptroller will not process any remaining transactions to conclude the purchase of this real property by Commissioner Whitehead," wrote Patricia L. Sheldon, Magaha's administrator for financial services.
Whitehead has abandoned his scheme for now. He told Derek Pivnick of the Pensacola News Journal he didn't realize that what he was doing was wrong.
Whitehead said he didn't seek the advice of County Attorney Janet Lander before submitting his bid, because he didn't think there would be a problem. He said he has bid on property foreclosed on by banks before.
No "problem" when a county commissioner votes to sell public property one week and tries to profit off that sale the next?

Of course, this isn't the first time Mike Whitehead has pleaded his own stupidity as an excuse for violating the law. Last year we learned it was his principle defense to Wisconsin charges of illegal deer hunting.

Maybe he really is dumb. Maybe not. Whitehead's latest gaffe seems to us to pose an irreducible puzzle: Have the voters of Escambia County District 1 elected a self-confessed idiot who doesn't know the law and ethics of county government, or have they elected a self-aggrandizing liar who only claims to be that stupid?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Law and Order: Atlanta

Via Discourse.net, you can sit in on what might be called "Law & Order: Atlanta," complete with the 'interrogation' of Prof. Fernandez-Armes, who was arrested, booked, and jailed by Atlanta's finest on charges of jay-walking, failure to obey a police officer, and obstruction of justice.

"[A]t once hysterically funny and a cringe-making embarrassment to Atlanta," comments University of Miami School of Law Professor Michael Froomkin. Thunk-thunk.

Part 1: The Crime

Part 2: The Trial

Part 3: The Verdict
("Puede usted tener pleitos y ganarlos.")

Monday, January 08, 2007

Flash! President Prepares Speech

HT to E & P:

It's not about oil, is it?

Every time one's sensibilities rebel against the conspiracy theory that George W. Bush sent tens of thousands of Americans to their doom in Iraq just to secure more oil for his corporate buddies, a news report like this surfaces:
Iraq's massive oil reserves, the third-largest in the world, are about to be thrown open for large-scale exploitation by Western oil companies under a controversial law which is expected to come before the Iraqi parliament within days.

The US government has been involved in drawing up the law, a draft of which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday. It would give big oil companies such as BP, Shell and Exxon 30-year contracts to extract Iraqi crude and allow the first large-scale operation of foreign oil interests in the country since the industry was nationalised in 1972.
* * *
Supporters say the provision allowing oil companies to take up to 75 per cent of the profits will last until they have recouped initial drilling costs. After that, they would collect about 20 per cent of all profits, according to industry sources in Iraq. But that is twice the industry average for such deals.
So, now we have to ask: if, as McClatchy News Service reports, "the No. 2 commander in Iraq conceded Sunday that a military 'surge' escalation would not be enough to rescue Iraq," what is it good for? Securing oil profits for Halliburton and Exxon-Mobil?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

House of Media Plagues

"A plague o' both your houses! 'Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of

Graph courtesy of Ben Bagdikian, "The New Media Monopoly"
(Beacon Press: 2004) via Iowans for Better Local TV

Pensacola Beach and Gulf Breeze cable subscribers awoke Saturday morning to discover that local channel 3 (WEAR-TV), an ABC affiliate and the only local VHF broadcaster in Pensacola, has been taken off Mediacom's cable channel list. As of early Sunday, it remains unavailable to the (comparatively few) cable subscribers in Escambia and south Santa Rosa counties.

Who's Affected?

Mediacom doesn't serve the mainland city of Pensacola itself, and therefore the local impact may appear limited for now. But the over-arching issue isn't confined to our small beach community or nearby Gulf Breeze.

Nationwide, as many as 700,000 Mediacom cable subscribers are affected. As Lewis Cooper reported for the PNJ yesterday.
In addition to WEAR and WFGX, there are a number of stations across the country that are owned by Sinclair [Brocasting Com.] in markets where Mediacom is the cable provider, including stations in Des Moines, Iowa; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Peoria, Ill.; Asheville, N.C.; Lexington, Ky.; Madison, Wis.; Nashville, Tenn.; Minneapolis. Minn.; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Springfield, Ill.; St. Louis, Mo.; Tallahassee; Birmingham, Ala.; Norfolk, Va., and Milwaukee.
According to Cooper, "WEAR will be replaced with Starz Kids and Family, a network similar to the Disney Channel... ."

A cynic might say no one will notice the difference; not even during channel 3's execrable evening commercial fest newscasts where, at last count, the minutes devoted to ads outnumber the minutes devoted to news in each 30-minute program.

Mediacom has argued, with considerable justification, that if Sinclair wins this struggle it will set a negotiating precedent of sorts that will affect over seventy million more cable households, not just those served by Mediacom. Sinclair most assuredly will serve the same demands on every other cable company in the nation's major markets where it operates a broadcast station.

Indeed, Sinclair already has set its sites on cable giants Comcast and Time-Warner for repeat performances. Cox Cable, which serves Pensacola, can't be far behind.

Essentially, this means that virtually every cable system in Florida and the nation, for that matter, has a stake in the outcome of the Sinclair-Mediacom war.

No Good Guys

Over the past few months some friends who are nervous over losing access to this or that ABC network show have emailed or called us about the simmering dispute between Mediacom and Sinclair. To all, we frankly confess that we just can't work up much sympathy for either side. As far as we can see there are no good guys in this fight. Everybody to some extent is wearing a black hat.

Under Sinclair's ownership, WEAR-TV has been steadily turned into one of the worst network television affiliates in the nation. If it weren't for the ABC network programs themselves, which thankfully Sinclair has no hand in creating, it's unlikely anyone would watch the station. Local programming is a bad joke. Even the station's news (and until recently its editorials) is largely phony-local, greatly dependent on well-camouflaged file stories arranged by Sinclair's Maryland headquarters.

As for Mediacom, like most cable franchises it enjoys a monopoly in the local service area -- and the dismal quality of its customer service and the near-total absence of local public access channel programming for Pensacola Beach and Gulf Breeze shows it. Or, at least it did enjoy a monopoly until thousands of locals began switching to satellite TV after Hurricane Ivan.

Still, as such things go Mediacom actually is one of the smaller players in the cable industry. It's ranked 8th in size among all cable companies. Unlike Sinclair, it is purely a carrier of others' signals. Also, unlike Sinclair it doesn't force its political views, whatever they may be, onto viewers.

So, we suppose, if we were forced by threat of losing Jim Leherer's News Hour to take sides, we'd probably sign up for a surge with Mediacom.

Most fans of Desperate Housewives or Boston Legal don't realize it, but the really bad actors in all of this are the seven Federal Communications Commissioners and the presidents who have appointed them over the past three decades.

"Must Carry" Rules

The immediate Sinclair-Mediacom dispute itself isn't complicated. It's about money and power. What the public is seeing now is just the tip-top of a giant iceberg known as media concentration.

As the chart at the top of this post shows, an oligopoly of only six media conglomerate giants now has a stranglehold on about 80% of all of America's mass media sources for news and information -- and much of our entertainment -- whether via TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet. This alarming state of affairs is the product of three decades of consciously neglectful antitrust enforcement and rash, anti-consumer policies pursued by a bought-and-paid-for Congress and every presidential administration since the Fairness Doctrine was permanently abolished during Ronald Reagan's presidency. (For an abbreviated timeline of key events in media consolidation, see this summary.)

Since the early 1970s, the broadcaster-friendly Federal Communications Commission has enforced regulations stipulating that local cable companies "must carry" local over-the-air broadcast stations for free. The "must carry" rules initially were a government gift to local broadcasters who feared losing ad revenue to distant, new super-channel competitors like CNN, ESPN, WGN, etc.

However, as cable subscriptions mounted and broadcasters felt the competition, the FCC intervened again to revise the "must carry" rules and make them even more broadcaster-friendly. In 1994 new regulations allowed those broadcasters who presumably have no fear of losing ad revenue the option of withholding re-transmission consent unless local cable providers agree to pay them a fee.

Thus, under current law the "must carry" option rests exclusively with the local over-the-air broadcast station, in this case Sinclair Broadcasting, the distant owner of Pensacola Channel 3. It can either insist on carriage by the cable company for free, or it can demand, if it dares, payment for retransmission consent.

We say 'if it dares' because if the over-the-air broadcaster demands payment, as Sinclair has done, and the cable company can't or won't agree to the price the cable system then is liberated from the "must carry" obligation as to that local station.

That's what happened as of midnight Saturday to all Mediacom subscribers when Sinclair Broadcasting rejected Mediacom's eleventh-hour offer for binding arbitration. Only public outcries for another fix of Desperate Housewives can rescue Sinclair Broadcasting from the greedy corner into which it has painted itself.

Network Non-Duplication Rules

Why doesn't Mediacom simply substitute another ABC station for WEAR-TV? Because FCC "network non-duplication" rules also forbid the cable company (and now satellite companies) from importing any other network affiliate's broadcast signal.

Congress recently mandated that the FCC re-study the non-duplication rules. It has been said that this was partly out of a concern that local broadcasters like Sinclair might do exactly what Sinclair is doing now: misuse the protections the FCC has given them to coerce cable companies into paying exorbitant fees to comply with the "must carry" rule.

But FCC commissioners appointed by George W. Bush have been notorious for encouraging more, not less, media consolidation while protecting the interests of the largest meda-media companies. Absent a dramatic change in federal campaign financing for congressional candidates -- as well as the White House occupant who appoints FCC commissioners -- no "study" much less meaningful reform in "must carry" or "non-duplication" rules is likely in the lifetime of any Pensacola Beach resident.

Indeed, an even bigger media gorilla is waiting in the wings to take a swipe at both cable and broadcast stations: the old Ma Bell monopoly. To the consternation of lobbyists who have fed and clothed their children while buying off politicians to clear the way for media mergers, industry concentration has become so severe, now, that the lobbyists themselves are losing clients because of conflicts of interests. The fewer media owners there are, the fewer potential clients the lobbyists can work for.

Maybe Marx was right: capitalism does contain the seeds of its own destruction.

When Oligopolists Collide

Sinclair is the party that put a fat fly in the ointment this time around. Last year, as the Iowa-based blog Corn 'o Copia noted in November, Sinclair Broadcasting stopped negotiating on the usual station-by-station and market-by-market basis and instead demanded that Mediacom "pay one price for all 23 Sinclair stations in 18 Mediacom markets... ."

Mediacom balked, arguing that not all markets have the same value. The cable company also argued that Sinclair's insistence on 'all-our-stations-or-nothing' violates anti-trust laws which forbid "tying" arrangements, or what consumers generally experience as "now that you bought this, you have buy that one, too."

Late last month, however, an attempt was unsuccessful to persuade a federal court in Des Moines, Iowa -- one of Mediacom's larger cable markets -- to require continued carriage of local network channels while negotiations continue. Mediacom's antitrust argument struck U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt as unlikely to prevail in any future trial and so he denied the injunction.

Judge Pratt acted not because Sinclair Broadcasting doesn't have a dominant share of the market -- it does. In fact Sinclair is the "single largest operator of local televisions stations in the United States." And, his ruling wasn't based on the assumption Sinclair doesn't abuse its monopoly power -- it has done so regularly by such transparent abuses as Maryland-based Mark Hyman's weekly biased editorials which pretended to originate locally; and by the preemption of Ted Koppel's tribute to our military victims in the Iraq War; and by the effort to preempt regular programming for a nationwide anti-John Kerry harangue just before the 2004 elections; and, as Rolling Stone's Eric Linenberg put it a year ago, by "unabashed cheerleading for the Bush administration" throughout Sinclair's political coverage.

No, Judge Pratt's ruling was based on the fact that under the FCC's revised "must carry" regulations if the two oligopolists can't agree on retransmission terms, Mediacom is free not to deal at all with Sinclair. Wrote the judge about the current "must carry" contract:
"The Court is reluctant to force Sinclair to maintain a business relationship with Mediacom when both parties clearly contemplated, and agreed to, a termination provision," Judge Pratt said. "Mediacom will not likely succeed in its attempt to establish an illegal tying arrangement because Mediacom is not being coerced into carrying the tied stations."
All About Money

Don't believe for a moment that either Sinclair, or Mediacom for that matter, is looking out for the public interest. Or that they really give a hoot about local service. As Don Hazen of Alternet recalled reading two years ago --
"Sinclair has turned localism on its head," Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, told the Chicago Tribune. "Instead of using its right to pre-empt national programming to preserve a local voice, it wants to impose its political will on 62 local stations."
The only interests Sinclair holds dear are its own. Let's remember that WEAR-TV is using, for free, electronic bandwidth which by law belongs to the public.

As a spokesman for the cable industry points out --
[T]he broadcast industry enjoys $105.2 billion in revenue and value from the public airwaves: $11 billion in analog spectrum; $24 billion in annual local ad revenue; $70 billion in digital spectrum; and $200 million in annual copyright payments.

“How does the broadcast industry thank the American taxpayer for this grant?” ACA CEO Matt Polka asked. “By seeking hundreds of millions more in direct retransmission-consent payments from taxpayers who subscribe to cable to receive their free over-the-air television signals."

Neither side has been forthcoming about the numbers they're arguing over. Some sources claim that "Sinclair laid out a price schedule to Mediacom calling for 36¢-40¢ per subscriber monthly for systems carrying any of the company's affiliates of the Big Four networks." But Dow Jones newswire two days ago carried a story suggesting that "For the first time, Sinclair is demanding an up-front cash payment from Mediacom in order to permit its channels to be broadcast."

Saturday's Des Moines Register (which is another cog, don'cha know, in yet another media empire that has slipped beneath the radar of our nation's moribund antitrust laws) gives another number. Quoting Barry Faber, Sinclair's vice president and corporate attorney, the Gannet Corporation-owned Register claims that Sinclair is demanding "'50 cents or less' per month" for every Mediacom subscriber living within reach of a local Sinclair Broadcasting station.

If true, simple math suggests Sinclair expects to gild its coffers by as much as $350,000 every month or nearly $4.25 million a year from Mediacom subscribers, alone. Even the lower estimates suggest a windfall of more than $2 million a year for Sinclair if just Mediacom caves in.

Add similar per-subscriber fees from larger cable companies like Cox, Comcast, and Time Warner and Sinclair would have itself a mountain of new-found wealth for doing nothing more than pulling off a negotiating heist using strong-arm tactics.

"Sinclair needs to win," Broadcast & Cable Magazine wrote the other day. "The company has touted retransmission-consent payments as a key source of growth, telling investors the fees could reach $80 million-$100 million annually. If so, that would increase Sinclair's operating cash flow by 25%-30%."

That's $100 million in new revenues every year, without adding a smidgen of new content or value to Sinclair's broadcast properties.

The Losers

The public, as always, will be the real losers however the dispute turns out. If Mediacom caves in to Sinclair's greedy demands, cable subscribers will see their bills significantly hiked. If it doesn't, FCC regulations ensure that Mediacom subscribers will not receive whatever network affiliate happens to be owned by Sinclair Broadcasting in their locality.

In either event the public has lost already. Federal law as enforced by the FCC, and as not enforced by the Justice Department's Anti-trust Division, has taken the public airwaves, handed them over for free to the likes of Sinclair Broadcasting, and then given that broadcaster a virtual license to rob cable customers at the point of a threat that otherwise they will lose a bit more of what little programming diversity they now enjoy with four networks.

Amplification Dept.

Cedar Rapids (Ia.) Town Square blog thinks Sinclair is bad news and "incredibly arrogant" while Mediacom has bad PR.