Thursday, October 4, 2018

On The Media Interview With Dean Starkman: The Difference Between "Access Reporting" and "Accountability Reporting" Explains How Very Important Things DON'T Get Reported- Plus Consider The Censorship Crisis

This article, which is about how very important things don’t get reported, will start with one jewel of an issue, the way mainstream media myopically curtails important information because of its reliance on “access journalism.” It will end by opening up another big, partly related, issue important in the overall context of what determines what information won’t flow out to the public: It’s the currently unfolding censorship crisis. . .   That's a crisis which can affect mainstream media, but is especially likely to affect alternative media and other forms of communication.

So to start where we will start. . .

It's a nifty, succinct, little interview . . .

WNYC's weekly On The Media program covered, in an ominously titled show called "Doomed to Repeat," the ten year anniversary of the financial crisis, together with the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico. (Of course others, like FAIR's Counterspin were also doing their ten-year anniversary take on the financial crisis- Interesting to listen to both together for comparison.) Included in the On The Media show was  a segment presenting an interview with Dean Starkman: Why the Business Press Didn't Warn Us [i.e., about the financial crisis].

Starkman is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, and he says that the very nature of business journalism explains a lot about why what is most important in society doesn't get reported. He attributes it to the difference between two kinds of journalism, what he terms “access reporting” and “accountability reporting.” Critically different between the two are the sources of the news and information being provided.

Here is a portion of the interview where Starkman elaborates (emphasis supplied):
DEAN STARKMAN: ... Access reporting is about trying to get access to powerful people to find out what they are thinking and intending, and there's a lot of value to that. Its sources, almost by definition, are elites. All of these qualities conspire to give you a [LAUGHS], a very particular and fairly narrow picture of the subject that you happen to be looking at. Accountability reporting is a different approach. Accountability reporting would have dissident sources, like plaintiffs, lawyers and whistle blowers and community groups and, in the case of financial crisis, attorneys general and state bank regulators and all the people who had their fingers on the problem. As opposed to appealing to investor interest, they would be looking for the public interest. And it's not a question of good guys and bad guys.

Over the course of my career, some of my most fun moments as a business reporter were merger and acquisition scoops. They were the ultimate access story and they're really hard to get and they're super satisfying. The trouble is that all too often the access tendency tends to overwhelm the accountability practice because, you know, let's face it, accountability reporting makes few friends. It's risky, it's stressful, it's expensive and, at the end of the day when the story's published, somebody's in trouble.
Although it undoubtedly overlaps, “access journalism,” is probably not exactly what is sometimes derisively referred to as “press release journalism.”  “Press release journalism” implies that the news reporter on the receiving end is essentially just publishing a press release he or she has received; they are just doing some cut and paste, something less than even just a typist.  On the flip side, “press release journalism” is also sometimes used as a complimentary description of the skills of the person on the other end who is sending out a press release and can write it with sufficient skill so that the press will publish it more or less intact, as an actual news story.  Also, if written cleverly, more people are likely to read it.

Since press releases generally go out with broad availability to a very wide spectrum of recipients, “access journalism” imports something more special, a less passive gathering of news: a journalist who by coddling his news providers with a sufficient degree of flattery, is given information from the important, famous, or powerful.  It’s the solicitation of information from politicians, government officials, business leaders, or celebrities, which those information providers don’t ordinarily chose to furnish as readily to others.  The information is bargained for with the payoff being that the provider of it gets good PR.  Arguably, there are skills involved: Good writing is valuable, and a knowledgeable journalist (knowing, among other things, what topics to bury or be careful about) may go further in this field, but essentially, “access journalism” is another extension of PR.  And, to follow through on Starkman’s dichotomy, it means not holding accountable the subjects of what is being reported.
                           
What do you suppose we are getting more of these days?  Starkman told On The Media:
The rise of PR has been so dramatic and the fall in journalism equally so that it's not a fair fight. If you're looking for where is the actual next crisis, I've seen work that says you should look at the energy sector. I would look at assaults on the Consumer Financial Protection Board.
In his On The Media interview Starkman offers another valuable concept that portends a lot; that there is synergy and a dynamic interrelationship between “accountability journalism” and government officials if those officials stand ready, willing and able to do the job of holding the powerful in check to protect the public:   
     . .  I liken investigative reporting without effective regulation as having all the impact of the sound of one hand clapping. It's not just that journalists use material gathered by regulators but it flows the other way as well where regulators and prosecutors and bank examiners and legislators gather ideas or begin their probes based on newspaper accounts.* Effective journalism and uncompromised regulation go hand in hand and if you lose one then the other is weakened. But that's really just another way of saying that journalism and democracy are really inextricably interrelated. Without a democracy, journalism is going to falter and without journalism so is democracy.
(* For instance, New York State and City tax authorities may now pursue civil penalties for tax evasion based in the New York Times recent investigative mega-story about how Fed Trump transferred his wealth to Donald and his other children.)
Indeed, it surely makes life more interesting when government officials actually do act to protect the public in response to press reports about how the powerful need to be reined in.  Journalism is also better able to command attention from all sides when it is about dynamics that are in play, rather than just reading as sad postmortems about how the public was taken advantage of one more time.

Starkman has been putting forth his ideas about the distinction he makes between “access journalism” and “accountability journalism” going back for a few years now.  One of his consistent observations is that in “business news, access reporting focuses on investor interests; accountability, on the public interest.”  Notwithstanding the likelihood of that divergence, if government officials are ready and responsive to the public interest, it would seem to narrow that gap.

If you are an addict to the 24/7 news cycle there’s a quote from Starkman appearing in Washington Monthly that might give you pause to rethink and wonder whether you should pull back.  Less news could be better quality news given the fact that the 24/7 news outlets have, in turn, their own addiction, a “voracious and unending” appetite for news that is best filled by access journalism:
I argue that within the journalism “field” a primal conflict has been between access and accountability  . . . . But this is hardly a fair fight. Nearly all advantages in journalism rest with access. The stories are generally shorter and quicker to do. Further, the interests of access reporting and its subjects run in harmony. Powerful leaders are, after all, the sources for much of access reporting's product. The harmonious relationship can lead to a synergy between reporter and source. Aided by access reporting, the source provides additional scoops. As one effective story follows another, access reporting is able to serve a news organization's production needs, which tend to be voracious and unending  . . . . Accountability reporting requires time, spaces, expense, risk, and stress. It makes few friends.
That’s a good argument for turning away from 24/7 news outlets as your typical diet. Perhaps it makes sense to turn to longer form reporting (articles and documentaries) and books, looking, in particular, for the classics.  This is not to say that there isn’t, of course, a whole class of books and longer form articles, and documentaries that similarly spew out a faster rate and are simply their own versions of another form of access journalism.  As for the 24/7 cycle, Starkman has dubbed “access reporting” the “CNBC-ization” of business journalism.   In evaluating the “balance” of the copious flow of “access journalism” information in the 24/7 new outlets, it is probably also worth remembering how money also has a superior ability to repackage the same propaganda regurgitated it out of multiple and different well-financed mouths to provide it with a semblance of freshness (as well as the imprimatur of “common wisdom”).
                   
“Access journalism” can, of course, be a legitimate source of valuable information.  That happens when it contains admissions against interest by the powerful providing access.  Sometimes, having their own needs to share information amongst themselves, they think (like Mitt Romney making his 47% campaign remarks) they are speaking to only to those who think the way they do.  That often makes the Wall Street Journal (set up behind a pay wall not everyone can afford to scale) so valuable.  Or one thing I like to watch for when researching is how official stories about things often change over time to keep up as what is thought to be the most currently serviceable narrative.  There seem to be assumptions the public has no memory.
Mr. Schwarzman interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show.
A case in point that provides several examples of such admissions against interests when a powerful man feels too comfortable, is one of Charlie Rose’s typically sycophantic interviews of a powerful man, his interview with billionaire Blackstone Group CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman where Schwarzman, among other things, bemoaned the fact that he can’t profit from more family homes going into mortgage default while describing probably too much about his library plans as well.  See- On Charlie Rose NYPL Trustee Stephen Schwarzman Confirms Suspicions: His $100 Million To The Library Was Linked To NYPL’s Real Estate Plans.  (It’s astounding that a man who thinks the poor need to pay more taxes so that the wealth can pay less is in one of the most powerful people in charge making decisions about New York City’s major libraries.)

In On The Media’s interview with Mr. Starkman, host Bob Garfield described the access journalism and accountability journalism as not only “two competing” journalistic approaches, but as two “sometimes converging journalistic approaches.”   When do they converge?  This was not spelled out.  Would it be when dueling elites at war with each other provide access at the same time?

But let’s ask the question the question again in this context: When the two approaches converge,  which approach is likely to gain the upper hand?  Which will carry the day?
                                       
Here is an example of what happened on one occasion when the two approaches “converged.”  The story has to do with my role as a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries.  In early 2013 we were working hard to get the word out about the sale and shrinkages of New York City libraries for real estate deals that benefitted developers, but were against the public interest.  My wife, Carolyn, (another of the co-founders of Citizens Defending Libraries) and I happened to be at the threatened Brooklyn Heights Library (then the central destination Business, Career and Education, Federal Depository Library in Downtown Brooklyn) when we encountered a New York Times reporter seeking us out for comment on the proposed sale and shrinkage of the library.  (We had already been written about in the New York Daily News.)

We were in this instance, to use Mr. Starkman’s description, in that category of “dissident sources” (that “accountability journalism” uses) who “had their fingers on the problem,” like the  “plaintiffs, lawyers and whistle blowers and community groups” he mentioned.  In fact, to be more precise, we were a “community group,” we were informed enough about the facts to be trying to `blow the whistle’ about what was going on; we also became the first named of the “plaintiffs” in two of the lawsuits against the Central Library Plan, while endeavoring to bring more lawsuits, and, for good measure, I might say that I am a lawyer.

Therefore, by Starkman’s criteria, Mr. Berger, the Times reporter who sought us out could have been off to the races with a good accountability journalism story.  We sat down with Mr. Berger in a luncheonette and told him some things he was very surprised to hear: The Brooklyn Heights Library was not the only New York City Library being targeted for a real estate sale; that not only were there others, but that it was part of an overall strategy; that the strategy of selling libraries should be viewed as connected to other similarly timed efforts also underway involving the sale of New York City schools (hospitals and post offices were up for sale at that time too).

At first Mr. Berger didn’t believe us, but we not only convinced him, his eyes widening during the discussion, we gave him sources of information for backup and essentially helped him scope out a very different article, a much more sweeping one, than when he initially just wanted to ask us about the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library and get a few quotes on only that.

My wife eagerly expected to see Berger’s article appear in the paper almost immediately.  I correctly predicted it would take him considerable time to digest what we have given him and that the story would go to a multiple by-line.  A journalist friend of ours whom we dined with that evening cynically predicted with reasonable accuracy what a disaster the story would be when it ultimately ran.

The Times ran the story almost a month later.  It ran as a big story on the front page.  The timing of the story’s publication gave some indication that there had been some coordination of the story's release with the opposing forces working to sell off libraries.  Although we had scoped the article and given Mr. Berger most of his leads that he followed up on in the article, we were not mentioned in the article at all.  Although we had been painstaking in explaining why these sales were not good for the public, how the assets were being plundered and sold for less than their value to the public, this concept was not expressed in the article.  Instead, the article was about why it was good to be selling libraries and schools for these real estate deals.  In other words, the Times reporters had gotten access to those in power selling the libraries and schools and the article was recapitulation of the PR formulated for public consumption.

More details are here: Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On? - Letter To The New York Times Editor (From Citizens Defending Libraries).

So, in this case, that was the result of one of the `convergence’ of the “two competing” journalistic approaches that Bob Garfield described as sometimes happening: Access journalism quashed accountability journalism.  Running into Mr. Berger later at another of our events opposing library sales, Mr. Berger was apologetic about the fact that his article didn’t mention us.  Even a mention of us that had been critical and disagreeing would have helped our petition and help people find out what Citizens Defending Libraries was working hard to let people know (in other words that familiar “there is no such thing as bad news coverage” concept. . . if they actually cover you).  Further, the Times chose that this very important article would be one of its articles that would not be open for public comment.  And Citizens Defending Libraries was unable to get the Times to publish its letter to the editor (carefully crafted to fall with the 150 Times word limit).

Mr. Berger said that he had included Citizens Defending Libraries in his article, but his editors had removed the references to us.  Mr. Berger was hoping we’d keep supplying him with information— Did we have any bargaining power?

Mr. Starkman’s distinction between access journalism and accountability journalism does not, so far as we have read, extend into another area, the final hurdle, after a story to report information has been written and is ready to be read, there is no assurance that the story will get another kid of access; the kind of access to get that article’s information, thoughts, arguments and point of view published and read by an audience in the public square of ideas.  The question of these additional hurdles slipstreams and goes hand in glove with Starkman’s critique of access journalism.

Noam Chomsky and Edward R. Herman long ago wrote about their postulation and analysis of a number of “filters” that block the flow of information that threatens those in power, including ownership of the media and the need to attract advertising (like the dependence of the Times on real estate industry advertising.)    In fact, Chomsky and Herman also identified long ago, as another of these filters, the media’s need for a symbiotic relationship with its sources of information, often the powerful.

The New York Times is a legacy media outlet, where the establishment of a significant capital infrastructure makes a filter like ownership exceedingly important.  There was once thought, however, that the disruptive influence of the internet would redistribute access to publication and make it more democratic.  Indeed, there have been huge shifts that could lead in exactly this direction: an estimated 70 percent of Americans are now getting their news from just two sources, Facebook and Google, a number that is likely rising.  Further, almost all information Americans are sharing now involves some sort of electronic, digital intermediation.  From Facebook, to Google to email, the internet is the new town square.

But now, when it comes to access to publication, we are confronted with a new crisis of censorship that is impeding access to that virtual town square.  It’s a scandal, but authors now have to be worried whether Facebook and other gatekeepers to the digital, virtual town square will punish them in very significant ways for expressing thoughts that ought to be well within the parameters of protected free speech.

For instance, (and perhaps readers themselves ought think twice before they share this story): Ian Millhiser, the justice editor for ThinkProgress, a not so far left internet outlet, wrote an article observing that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had said that he would apply the Glucksberg rule in determining whether or not the rights afforded under Roe v. Wade should be upheld, and Millhiser noted that, in 2017, Kavanaugh had previously said that Roe v. Wade was not consistent with the Glucksberg rule.  Consequently, Millhiser rather sensibly, and probably quite accurately concluded that Kavanaugh had therefore essentially said at his hearing that he would overturn Roe v. Wade.  Millhiser’s article conveyed a sense of amazement that this was going unreported.

Millhiser’s article and important analysis was identified as “fake news” by Facebook with the help of a conservative and not impartial rival publication (The Weekly Standard) and Facebook thereupon punished ThinkProgress by throttling by 80% the sharing of all their content.  But Facebook’s unfair censorship leveled other draconian media punishment:                               
The second thing is that a push notification is sent to everyone who shared it, informing them that it is, quote, “false news.”

And then the third thing that happens is everyone who shared it, even the people who shared it before The Weekly Standard weighs in, gets punished. All of their content gets downgraded and is less likely to show up in people’s newsfeeds from that point forward.
Jimmy Dore observed the irony of the fact that immediately before this censorship and punishment by Facebook, ThinkProgress was “cheerleading” much of the censorship that Facebook was doing.  Meanwhile, (also available in Dore’s commentary) ThinkProgress has since pointed out that some of this Facebook censorship involves Facebook hiring the very conservative Senator John Kyl of Arizona “to lead `an audit’ of alleged `liberal bias at the expense of conservative voices’” and that among Kyl’s other duties was that the Trump White House tapped Kyle to act as Kavanaugh’s “Sherpa” to get Kavanaugh successfully through the confirmation process.

Jimmy Dore coverage of the irony of ThinkProgress's censorship and Senator John (Kavanaugh Sherpa) Kyl's involvement in Facebook's censorship
Facebook is also working with the militaristic and corporatist Atlantic Council (it includes members such as Henry Kissinger, former CIA chief Michael Hayden, etc. ) on what content to squelch.

The power of such censorship by private companies on the internet can be seen from the organized, coordinated and sudden crackdown and “deplatforming” of Alex Jones.  Not only did Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Spotify, Pinterest, Stitcher Radio, Periscope, and LinkedIn act either in unison or more or less coordinated fashion to shut down Jones’ outlets and access to his followers, MailChimp took away his mailing list and PayPal shut down the transmission of funds to him.

There is fairly widespread and almost automatic feeling that much of Alex Jones content is objectionable. . .   so much so, that a more nuanced discussion about some of Jones content is not going to happen.  It is also quite possible that Alex Jones, who has been characterized as something of a performance artist in purveying his content, is not 100% on the level.  Arguably, even if he didn’t intend to make himself a target for censorship, his bent in serving up such an intriguingly peculiar stew of content could have been exactly as it turned out, to help make alternatives to mainstream media ridiculous and more likely to be generally dismissed out of hand.

It is nevertheless a problem that Jones is being censored in this way, and while Alex Jones may be the focal point that provides most of mainstream’s optics for this censorship launch (pleasing to many), it’s not just Alex Jones that’s being censored.  It is also ThinkProgress.  And it is others.  There is too much talk in powerful circles about mobilizing the United States to invade Venezuela. . . Simultaneously, web outlets that provide the other side of the story are being censored: Sites that say why we should not invade Venezuela, that describe the United States as acting like an empire and that say why United States treatment of Venezuela ought to be subject to some scathing criticism.

When I say the things I am saying here I have to think twice, because I have to wonder whether when I write certain things whether it will cause this National Notice site to slide down in its Google ranking if Google spikes the site with its algorithms.  Are the National Notice and Citizens Defending Libraries sites Googling lower already because of the ideas that have been expressed there?  I don’t know.  From my observations, quite possibly.

As Matt Taibbi, Abby Martin, and others are pointing out, based on the practice of what is already being shut down and the language offered with respect to the criteria being used, it is enough to be deemed that a site is “sowing division” for it to be censored.  Or sites may be censored for “glorifying violence,” (really, in this culture?  Where we are "guided by the beauty of our weapons"?) “sowing division,” “hateful conduct,” or “fomenting radical discontent” (the last of which may even mean encouraging third party candidates).  Clearly, the message is that people are supposed to travel a safe, middle, somehow consensus-defined road with respect to the views and information they communicate.  What is not clear is how narrow that road is now expected to be, may become in the future, or the arbitrariness with which its edges get defined. . .

. . .  Matt Taibbi points out how self-censoring journalists are likely to become as they fear punishment for transgressing unknown lines as application of the guidance of the previously clear legal lines (and remedies) of Times v Sullivan are superseded by something vaguer and stricter.

It may be that “Dark Money” can blanket the broadcast airwaves with commercials intended to influence political campaigns that emanate from anonymously funded fake public interest groups, but if Facebook deems pages organizing attendance at demonstrations to oppose Neo-Nazi groups to be “inauthentic” they will shut them down.  And to thoroughly confuse and muddy the debate, in rather suspicious ways, it seems that Facebook is at the same time discriminatorily shutting down black activist sites and communication while it remains inert as streams of false information postings contribute majorly to political turmoil and upheaval in certain countries overseas, including the inflammation of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar (Burma).

Here in the United States, you can even now be censored for not regulating your tone.  Journalist Glen Greenwald who has been alert to the unfolding censorship crisis pointed out that Georgetown Professor C. Christine Fair was just censored by Twitter for adopting a “kill all the lawyers” tone (to use Shakespeare’s terminology) when, in connection with Lindsey Graham’s tirade at the Kavanaugh hearing (itself an ostentatious example of questionable tone control), she railed against the “chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement” suggesting what metaphorically ought to be those men’s just deserts.

When it comes to Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, we are dealing with huge monopolies that, dominate the market, and, as noted, have also essentially become, in so many, many respects our town square, digitally supplanting much of what existed and was relied on before.  It truly seems that these changes require that these companies be considered common carriers (like trains, buses or the phone company)*, and they should not be allowed to discriminate, as they do now, by corporate caprice with no regulation or due process protection.  They are, after all, the modern day version of the phone company. . . (when, in fact, is the last time you didn’t first go to Facebook before trying the “phone book” when you wanted to track down somebody you needed to contact?).
(* It should be noted that the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, has already provided that these companies are not responsible from a liability standpoint for content posted by those using their services, so these companies cannot claim that the content published either is somehow their own or subjects them to liability.)
Right now, we have the worst of all worlds.  If the internet, which was begun and developed by the federal government, were still in government hands, then the free speech protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would protect against discrimination and the shutting down of free speech.  But the internet was quietly privatized with no fanfare or discussion of the implications at the time and these are private companies.  They are private companies irrespective of contexts in which their power probably exceeds that of the government.

Because these companies might be regulated, but would prefer not to be, and because they have all sorts of interactions with the government, including huge contracts, they want to please the government, it being important for them to please the most powerful most.  Thus, their actions become extensions of the wishes of those most powerful in government.  At the same time, the free speech protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t get applied.  Further, these companies become such extensions of the powerful in government without the government ever having to take any formal action or observe any sort of due procedure to adopt a law or openly reflect the reaching a public consensus about what they are doing.

The powerful in government looking to shape Google's and Twitter's bias: Recent articles in the New York Times about Republicans pressuring Google to be more on their side. (1,2,3,4)
But, if there were regulations, the regulations we don’t have, those regulations would have to require the application of neutral standards . . . or they would violate the free speech protections required by the Constitution.

Right now, as I said above, we have the worst of all worlds. . . but that might be the way certain people would like it.

The subject of internet censorship crisis that is unfolding right now is too immense to fully consider before we wrap up this piece which began with the more simple discussion of “access journalism,” but here are links for some additional worthwhile discussion, review and consideration of the issue:
    •     Rolling Stone: Beware the Slippery Slope of Facebook Censorship- The social network is too big and broken to properly function, and these “fixes” will only create more problems, by By Matt Taibbi, August 2, 2018
                                       
    •    Rolling Stone:  Censorship Does Not End Well- How America learned to stop worrying and put Mark Zuckerberg in charge of everything, by By Matt Taibbi, August 13, 2018

    •    Project Censored: Abby Martin, Mike Prysner, and Kevin Gosztola, September 4, 2018
(Includes: “discussion regarding efforts to censor voices critical of the US empire from journalists to veterans and whistleblowers. They’re rejoined by Abby Martin of The Empire Files about online censorship and recent attacks of her work on TeleSUR”)   
    •    Project Censored: The Censorship of Youtube and Facebook with David Pakman and Andrew Austin, August 22, 2018

    •    Jimmy Dore Radio Shows: August 16, 2018 (at 32 minutes in) and September 13, 2018 (at 36:50 in)
Censorship and the suppression of free speech is something that, as a matter of principle, should worry us all, but, as a practical matter, the question of censorship is likely to seem less threatening to the mainstream media outlets that mainly make “access journalism” their daily bread and butter.  That’s because those outlets have that symbiotic relationship that aligns their interests with those in power.  That's something those outlets may well suppose will protect them and allow them to continue on their present course.  Moreover, mainstream media, including all those outlets responsible for the 24/7 news cycle, is almost entirely owned by six conglomerate companies.  Thus, as gargantuas in their own right, they have they own heft to help them stand up to the huge companies that are now the communication pipes of the internet.

Nor can we finish without recognizing how the interests of mainstream media can be antagonistic to those most likely to be subjected to censorship.  Because the internet presents the potential for disrupting mainstream media’s monopolistic business model, censorship of alternative media and the attractions of its alternative narratives works to buttress the sovereign status of mainstream media.  This push back against the Internet's potential for disruption (and democratization of information flow) is quite similar to why the media outlets of the six conglomerates, sometimes with interlaced ownerships, are more prone to favor (or just not report about the significance of) the abolition of net neutrality, the rule that, if in place and enforced, ensures free and open access to all publishers on the internet.

A last reminder, before leaving off: We have written here about how the mainstream media can be far from reliable and how and why, specifically, the public may be denied important information concerning what it ought to know about, like, for instance, as noted at the beginning of this piece, the likelihood that a major financial crisis was looming before 2008.  Perhaps then the biggest irony is that one of the most frequently advanced memes offered as justification for the newly unfolding wave of censorship, often by the mainstream media, is that it is the alternative media that is unreliable.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Out In Theaters Now: “Shock and Awe” A Film About Suppression of Anti-War News Journalism That Itself Seems Like It Is Being Suppressed– So You’ll Have to Hurry To See It

Two film reviews that came out last week are poles apart: One is the New York Times review of Rob Reiner’s new film “Shock and Awe,” a true story about investigative beltway reporting.  It’s about the run-up to Iraq war.  The other was the review of the same film that appears in the Village Voice.

The New York Times review of the film is disgraceful: It reviews the film dishonestly treating it as essentially a non-movie.  It short-shrifts it with a few mostly dismissive paragraphs.  Likely to be overlooked by most readers, the message was clearly: `nothing to see here, move along.'

Conversely, the review in the Village Voice was way beyond respectful. It was an engaging one that would likely encourage most readers to see the film.  Oddly, the Village Voice review, initially very easy to discover in an internet search just hours after it was posted, was soon almost impossible to find by Googling.  That is one indicator of a question that needs to be discussed: Whether the film is being suppressed.  The New York Times review, on the other hand, continues to be easy to find.

Ben Kenigsberg, who wrote the Times mini-review, probably telegraphed what he was up to when he wrote in the first paragraph that the film insults the abysmal quality of news coverage that the New York Times offered during the run up to the Iraq war.  And truly, part of the fun of the film (as the Village Voice review recognized: Rob Reiner’s “Shock and Awe” Takes on Bush’s War and the “New York Times” — and Wins) is how thoroughly the film lambasts the New York Times as an unconscionable conduit of propaganda for the powerful who doled out access in return for the publication of the false stories they want the public to swallow.  The inspiring part of the film is how diligent reporters working at the Knight Ridder newspaper chain were, without high-level access, able to see through the deceptions and get the story right.  Its main characters, journalists working for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, are Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, and later Joe Galloway working under their Washington bureau chief John Walcott.

In the film, that propaganda is the fake news that the George W. Bush administration manufactured and deceitfully handed out in 2003 as an excuse to go to war in Iraq.  As such, the film is ever so relevant to today, particularly from a potentially anti-war standpoint, as we presently listen to the drumbeats urging the U.S. to start up new wars around the world on multiple fronts, Korea, Iran, Syria, Russia, Yemen, Venezuela. . .  Two of those countries, not yet attacked by us, Korea, and Iran, were, alongside Iraq, included in G. W. Bush’s original 2002 rhetoric about a tripartite “Axis of Evil.”— Venezuela is the country that Trump very recently questioned whether we could invade. . .  Thus, it is perhaps not surprising if the film is being suppressed in various ways, as appears may very likely be the case.

In his New York Times review, Kenigsberg ignores those ways that the film is most likely relevant and manages to invert the way he concludes that the film “feels more timely than it might have,” by instead linking its potential relevance to a “current president” who “routinely dismisses the accuracy of reporting.”  In other words, Trump is the enemy again and if you have the notion that the New York Times publishes fake or unreliable news then that puts you in the Trump camp?

Kenigsberg concludes his review by saying of the film:
It also captures an aspect of journalism not often portrayed: the fear of being wrong when the conclusions of your reporting break from those of your competitors.
That almost sounds like a humorously offered defense of the New York Times for getting it 100% wrong in the run up to the Iraq war, as if instead of incredible sloppiness on the part of the Times, there was just a difference of opinion between competing journalists about what the news actually was with the Times and Judith Miller having the commendable courage to get it wrong.

The film is a significant addition to the expanding canon of films about real journalists reporting about real events and issues.  Some of them are documentaries and others, like this and “All The Presidents’ Men” are dramatized versions of what happened.  To include its release, National Notice has just updated a list of such films ordered according to the chronology of the real events concerned: Time To Update Our Timeline Presenting Movies About Real Journalists Covering Real Public Issues and Events (To Include “Shock and Awe” and “Risk”), Sunday, July 15, 2018.- 

One important subject of “Shock and Awe” is about the working of mainstream media and how the reporting of the Knight Ridder team of journalists which, essentially anti-war because of its rightful skepticism, was suppressed.  The on-target and in retrospect very valuable stories published by the Knight Ridder chain were not treated as news or picked up by New York Times, Washington Post and other mainstream media.   As the films puts it, those media outlets, as in the wake of 9/11, acted as “stenographers” for the Bush administration’s propaganda.  One of the things the film sadly depicts is how the Philadelphia Inquirer, one newspaper in the Knight Ridder chain, defected, refusing to publish the accurately skeptical Knight Ridder stories and replaced them with the stories by Judith Miller for which the New York Times ultimately had to apologize because of they were so abjectly false.

The film was discussed in a segment of this week’s On The Media. On The Media introed its coverage of the film (at 11:46) with: “What if great investigative journalism falls in the forest and doesn’t make a noise: Fifteen years later it becomes a movie.”  Unfortunately, we could now add to that bleak epigram: “A movie that nobody sees.”. . .

. . . People are tweeting about how the film only made an absolutely paltry $41,000 its opening weekend, calculating that this must work out to about five tickets being sold per showing of the film.

This astoundingly poor showing doesn’t seem exactly like an accident.  I was eager to see the film as soon as it came out, but finding out where it was playing and how to get tickets was next to impossible when I tried.  The incomplete information Fandango offered was inaccurate.  There was only one theater in New York City where I could see the film at unless I wanted to travel to Coney Island late at night.

The apparent suppression of the film now, and thus, once again, the underlying story that is so very relevant to right now, is very meta.

The film also addresses concerns beyond mere journalism that are less vanilla and increasingly relevant to today.  I could offer a “spoiler alert” concerning what I am about to describe, but the film is so subtle in one respect that I think the way it pitches one point is likely to go over the heads of almost everyone.  “All The President’s Men” has its scene where reporters Woodward and Bernstein realize that their lives may be in danger and that they may also be the subject of surveillance.  “Shock and Awe,” has a very comparable scene that takes place between Woody Harrelson playing reporter Jonathan Landay and Milla Jovovich playing his wife.  Based on her experiences when her country of Yugoslavia disintegrated, she warns Landay that he needs to be concerned for their lives and about surveillance.  She does so when he tells her that he is working on a story about how the Bush administration is stove-piping intelligence up to a newly created senior unit at the top of the U.S. intelligence agencies for cherry-picking and manipulation purposes.

Immediately after this concern is expressed, another scene follows where the New York Times  scoops the Knight Ridder team on that same story, but does so in a way that neutralizes and defangs the point of what Knight Ridder would have reported, inoculating the intelligence agencies against any future disclosure of information the new special unit formed to skew the intelligence.  The implied question that is likely to go by too many viewers is whether the Bush administration fed the scoop to a cooperative New York Times to protect itself.  Essentially the question is whether the Times acted yet again, in yet another way, as an extension of the Bush administration’s push toward war.

The Kenigsberg review suggests that this is not a film that intelligent or informed people will want to see saying that “the writing . . . has more interest in reaching the least-informed viewers than in realism.”  In other words, saying that the film is pedestrian and didactic: But there is a lot in the film that most viewers will not know.

It is fair to say that the film, is aspirational about edifying and educating and therefore sticks fairly close to facts.  The On The Media segment noted that it therefore must deal with a story that is a bit of "a downer."  It also therefore necessarily falls short of checking the standard formulaic boxes for success as mindless entertainment or even infotainment.  There are bad guys, but no car chases or super-heroes throwing enormous objects as they fly through the air.  The bad guys also get away with their scheme in the end. It is nonetheless a good and inspiring film, very worth seeing, that could critically educate a large segment of our population.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t necessarily engage in some streamlining when it comes to the facts, something it perforce almost has to do.  The film starts by establishing the events of 9/11 as backdrop to the story that partly explains the lack of criticism of the government by the media at the time.  To emphasize how off track it was to blame Iraq for 9/11 it keeps its focus on Osama bin Laden as the 9/11 perpetrator who is, as a result, getting off the hook.  The film does not detour into the unpursued involvement of the Saudis.

Although the film’s courageous protagonists don’t get to follow the standard arc of today’s mythically-presented and godlike movie superheroes (some are actually Gods of ancient myth– and the Times in its movie reviews takes them more seriously), it sent me scurrying to research one of the great enduring myths of all time, the Greek Myth of Cassandra. In their ancient story telling, the Greeks (e.g. Sisyphus) have a penchant for exquisite frustration: Cassandra was granted the gift of accurate prophecy sequestered in the curse that whatever she predicted would not be believed.  The plight of the film’s reporting team is much the same.

The reporters in the film are able to see and accurately report that the Bush administration was lying and cherry picking intelligence, and they are able to foresee the many ways that going to war in Iraq would ultimately be exactly as extremely costly and counterproductive as it was.  They do so, not through prophecy, but by digging to come up with well-founded documentation.  Part of their strategy is to cultivate, as sources, lower level government officials rather than rely on access to top officials looking for media conduits to prostitute themselves.  (The reason that Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo to have her prophecies never believed was that she would not go to bed with him.)

Another difference between the true story the film offers and the Cassandra story is the centrality of how the Knight Ridder reporters were not merely predicting the future, but trying to unmask liars crafting a concocted story.  But, in similar fashion, Cassandra was also predicting wars that would be disastrous to the civilizations involved, and at one point she too is dealing with and seeing through deception: When the Greeks deliver their Trojan Horse to the city of Troy, Cassanda knows it is a trick.  When she tries to destroy the horse herself, she is stopped by the people of Troy who degrade her for not appreciating the Greek gift.  The Greeks inside the horse were amazed at her perception.

Is there a lack of helpful attention and coverage that is suppressing this film?  Are reviews like the Times review intended to help bury it quickly?  Admittedly, the film makes almost all the newspapers and news magazines in the country look bad, and now it is up to those same news media outlets to publicize, praise or excoriate the film and help it find its audience.  It is not surprising that the film is getting little help from these quarters.  There are also serious questions about what does and does not get elevated in importance, or conversely what gets suppressed, by Google and Facebook algorithms.  (This article about the film may not Google well.)

If the film is being suppressed, I think that the best antidote is to build legs for it by noticing the suppression.  The film is reasonably good by any standard, and the only things that make it less than a perfect entertainment or work of art are the things that also make it a more important film in other respects.  Certainly, at the very least, anti-war sites should publicize the film and its apparent suppression.

We will have to conclude with some ironies.  The false information promulgated by almost every mainstream media outlet in the United States during the George Bush administration’s bellicose run up to the war is being cited by people like Aaron Maté for reason to be skeptical about all the Russiagate charges that Russia is an enemy of the Unites States interfering with our elections, especially since special prosecutor Robert Mueller heading the FBI in February 2003 was one of those Bush administration officials giving congress misleading information about Iraq  (at 9:11 in video).  Mueller, who started in office as head of the FBI a week before 9/11, is also one of the people in our government who inexplicably did not pursue the evidence linking top Saudis to 9/11.

But, on the other hand, yesterday in my email I got a request from Rob Reiner, the director of “Shock and Awe,” asking me to sign his petition demanding that President Donald Trump:
meet with special counsel Robert Mueller and answer his questions about possible conspiracy with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election and obstruction of justice to cover it up. It’s imperative that federal investigators have all the information they need to get to the truth.
Frankly, the timing of the petition email from Reiner is just too weird.  And, if I were someone like Aaron Maté, I’d say that it hardly squares with the rigorous skepticism and caution about people in government that Reiner’s new film really ought to encourage.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Time To Update Our Timeline Presenting Movies About Real Journalists Covering Real Public Issues and Events (To Include “Shock and Awe” and “Risk”)

Actors playing real journalists in real events are above, but our chronological list of films about real events in journalism also includes documentaries.
Back in January, National Notice reviewed and considered Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” which was still in the theaters and campaigning for a number of Academy Awards.  Given that “The Post” ends with a scene denoting it as a prequel to the renowned “All The President’s Men” (1976), it inspired us to also create a timeline of films that have been made about real journalists covering real events.  (See: Sunday, A Timeline of Reporting Dramas: Movies About Journalistic Coverage of Real Public Issues and Events, January 7, 2018.)

Now, with the release of the Rob Reiner directed  “Shock and Awe” in theaters on Friday, it is time to update the chronology of media events the films collectively afford.  We are also grabbing the opportunity to add to the chronology the documentary “Risk,” another documentary about Julian Assange and Wikileaks the first version of the chronology overlooked.  “Shock and Awe” is about how in the run up to the Iraq War journalists working for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain figured out and reported that the George W. Bush administration was lying and using other similarly unsavory and illicit tactics to propel the United States into an ill advised and ultimately very costly war; and they did this while virtually every other mainstream media outlet reporting was bamboozled by the Bush administration, publishing seriously inaccurate and misleading information as a result.

Our previous posting of the first version of the film chronology explained the criteria for including films in the list and discussed films about journalism and journalism issues that were left out because they were not about real journalists covering on the actual conflicts of our changing times.  The chronology of the films in the list is based on the dates of the events they are about, not the years in which the films were made or released.

The inclusion of films in this list as a resource does not vouchsafe that any of the particular films have gotten it exactly right in terms of the facts.  How valid any film's perspectives is, can bear more discussion.

Here then is a list that presents a chronology in which you can see an evolution of what we have believed has been the role of journalists.

    •    Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).  Set in 1953, during the early days of television broadcast journalism. Edward R. Murrow along with his CBS news team take a stand and take on the anti-communist fear mongering of  Senator Joseph McCarthy.

    •    All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone (2016).  This film covers the legacy of investigative journalist I.F. Stone who died at 81 in 1989, who writing in his I.F. Stone Weekly (1953–71), reported about and during the eras of Joe McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson all the way to Ronald Reagan.

    •   The Post (2017) and The Pentagon Papers (2003).  Both are dramas about the publication of the Pentagon Paper released by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study.  The papers were first brought to the attention of the public on the front page of The New York Times starting Sunday, June 13th, 1971.  The Washington Post began publishing its own series of articles based upon the Pentagon Papers on June 18, 1971.
    •    All The President’s Men (1976).  About the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal.  The Watergate scandal began with the incident with which “The Post” ends: On June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills at the Watergate complex finds a door's bolt taped over so that it will not lock.
    •    Frost/Nixon (2008). Based on the David Frost interviews of Richard Nixon recorded and broadcast on television in four programs in 1977 in which Nixon climatically admitted his wrongdoing.
    •    Kill The Messenger (2014).   Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, the film takes place in the mid-1990s. Webb uncovered the CIA's role in importing cocaine into the U.S. to secretly fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels through the manufacture and sale of drugs in the U.S.  Pressure to drop pursuit of his story Webb published his evidence in the series "Dark Alliance."  He then experienced a vicious smear campaign fueled by the CIA, during which he found himself defending his integrity, his career, his family, ending in his unfortunate death.  (This film somewhat oddly does not show up as readily when googling these subjects as the others do.)

    •    The Insider (1999).  About whistle-blower Jeffrey S. Wigand who became famous for his appearance in 1996 on the CBS news program 60 Minutes to reveal that the Brown & Williamson tobacco industry company had intentionally manipulated its tobacco blend with chemicals to increase the addictive effect of nicotine in cigarettes.  The film is about how CBS, with business motivations driving it, was suppressing the story while a smear campaign was conducted against Wigand, and about the ultimate involvement of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times in getting the story out.  Afterwards, in real life, the producer of the Wigand segment, Lowell Bergman, portrayed in the film by Al Pacino, went on to work for the New York Times, including working on collaborations with “Frontline.”
    •    Shattered Glass (2003).  A film about the embarrassment of how for three years until 1998 many of the humorous and entertaining articles that Stephen Glass wrote for the liberal magazine “The New Republic” were cobbled together from his multiple inventive fictions.

    •    Spotlight (2015).   It is based on a series of stories by the "Spotlight" team about the Catholic Church's concealment of its priests' sexual abuse of children that earned The Boston Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. (With news stories appearing from January 6, 2002 to December 14, 2002).
     •    “Shock and Awe” (2018).  “Shock and Awe,” which starts with references to the events of 9/11 in 2001, takes place mostly during the 2003 run up to the Iraq War.  It focuses on journalists working for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, particularly Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, and then  Joe Galloway working under Washington bureau chief John Walcott, and how they were able to figure out that the George W. Bush administration was ginning up and manufacturing bogus reasons to go to war with Iraq.  Although they were able to see and accurately report with well founded documentation that the Bush administration was lying and cherry picking intelligence, together with the fact that going to war in Iraq would be extremely costly and counterproductive, the film is also about the way mainstream media works.  Which is to say that no other mainstream media picked up or reporting the news they published.  Instead, as the film makes the point, in the wake of 9/11 the New York Times, Washington Post and other mainstream media essentially acted as stenographers for the Bush administration’s propaganda.  In fact, one of the things the film sadly depicts is how the Philadelphia Inquirer, one newspaper in their chain, defected refusing to publish the accurately skeptical Knight Ridder stories about the administration and replaced them with the stories by Judith Miller for which the New York Times ultimately had to apologize because of the were false.

    •    Truth (2015).  This film is another about the CBS news program 60 Minutes.  It takes place in the months leading into the US 2004 presidential election (Bush v. Kerry) and tells the story about how CBS News anchor Dan Rather and others working for the CBS program were subject to criticism and lost their jobs for alleged liberal bias in reporting a basically true story about preferential treatment of George W. Bush in the National Guard (1968 to 1973 during which time Bush did not show up for a medical exam and stopped fulfilling his flying commitments) when it turned out that documents with which the newspeople had been supplied to support their story were likely faked in whole or in part by somebody.

    •    The Fifth Estate (2013), Underground: The Julian Assange Story (2012) We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013) Mediastan (2013) All of these films deal with Julian Asssange, the founding of Wikileaks (in 2006) and related events through 2010.  “Underground” covers the earliest period of Assange's life (the 1980s and 1990's pre-1997).

    •    Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)  It deals with Times coverage of many things mostly during the time it was made, such as the 2008 bankruptcy of Tribune Media and The Afghan War documents leak, also called the Afghan War Diary, published by WikiLeaks in July 2010.

     •    “Risk” (2016).  The film, another documentary about Julian Asssange, by Laura Poitras, the release of which unfolded in more than one iteration involves events she filmed from 2006 to 2016 ending with the election of Donald Trump.  As such it includes events that overlap with Edward Snowden’s emergence blowing the whistle about illegal surveillance by the United States intelligence agencies.  There is a lot of back story about the connections that the film does not go into in any depth.

    •    Citizenfour (2014) and Snowden (2016). Respectively, first the film that won the Academy Award for best documentary (like "Risk," also directed by by Laura Poitras) and the subsequent Oliver Stone directed bio-pic that both cover Edward Snowden’s leaks to journalists of classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 concerning the extensive and illegal spying of the US government on U.S. citizens and on others around the world after the 9/11 attacks.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Notes On Reliability of Coerced Confessions, Plus How That Relates To The Woman Appointed to Head The CIA

Gina Haspel, on left coming in to Senate hearing with respect to her nomination
According to the Innocence Project, of all the people whom DNA evidence later exonerates as wrongfully convicted, more than 1 out of 4 made a false confession or incriminating statement.

That’s why the Innocence Project recommends mandatory recording of interrogations.  Recording of interrogations can reveal whether police are communicating facts, elements and information about a crime to suspects which suspects later communicate back to them as somehow proof of their involvement in the crime and the way it unfolded.  It enables suspects to repeat back to the police essentially what the police have predetermined they want to hear.  To be absolutely blunt, at that point, the interrogated suspect is essentially collaborating with the interrogators to recast falsehoods as documented fact. Suspects may be inclined to do so particularly if they feel helpless to do anything else and especially if they are under duress and being coerced.  In the United States (since at least the 1936 ruling in Brown v. Mississippi) physically brutal torture to achieve a confession is, quite sensibly, a clear denial of due process.

Recorded interrogations are more reliable and can point back to what is more likely true when coercion causes the confessions to veer from the production of truth to falsehood.  Recordings have value, including retroactively, to  seek out and establish truth.

In the great grand scheme of what justice is and should be, it is not just the determination of the guilt or innocence of the particular suspect that is in issue.  And it is not just a question of who should be charged for a crime instead given that every conviction of an innocent man probably means guilty parties remain free.–   Yes, false confessions can help the actual perpetrators of crime avoid detection.–  Recordings can also point back to improper bias, and perhaps point back, perhaps in even incriminating ways, to improper goals and agenda on the part of the interrogators.  For instance, the interrogators may want to make themselves look good (like Det. "I've done nothing wrong" Louis Scarcella) through the easy convenience of finding a quick scapegoat (as in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case); they may also be indifferent or worse to the suffering of the already marginalized and persecuted minority individuals they target for such convenient scapegoating.

Therefore recordings take on a very special importance if there is any possibility of questionable motives on the part of the interrogation team.  They also help uproot and exorcise flaws that make the failure of justice systematic.

All of the above is probably intuitively clear to the reader without my writing it.  But I am starting with the basics to come in the back door to talk about something else, a bigger topic.  It’s something that no one else seems to have talked about in the mainstream media or even most of its fringes even as we whirled through an event that otherwise got a huge amount of media attention: Our nomination of Gina Haspel to head to become the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

It’s our country’s latest affront and embarrassing communication to the world that we feel that we and our allies are above and immune to such laws as the Geneva Convention and Nuremberg Principles.

Gina Haspel, “Bloody Gina” as many of her detractors refer to her, was quickly confirmed by the senate to head the CIA.  She shouldn’t have been.  Although outrage over her nomination was dutifully expressed in various quarters, not much was done to effectively prevent her from assuming the office.  What was done did not discourage six Democrats from joining with Republicans to produce an approval vote of 54 to 45.  The vote would have been lopsidedly the other way had the Democrats not switched given that three Republican senators were opposing the nomination.
The expressions of why Ms. Haspel was unacceptable to head the CIA were superficial . . . as if nothing extra needed to be expressed in opposition.  They mostly amounted to the reasons a New York Times editorial opposing her confirmation expressed; that she should not be confirmed because of:
    •    “her role at the center of one of . .  a brutal interrogation regime that used torture against terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks.”

    •    Her taking the lead in advocating for and drafting instructions to order the destruction of tapes documenting torture interrogations for which she was responsible.
Furthermore, it was far from absolutely clear at the Senate hearing that Ms. Haspel would not do or let such similar things happen again, even though she gestured at checking the box of sounding like she would not do it again with a collection of statements:
    •    “I would not put C.I.A. officers at risk by asking them to undertake risky, controversial activity again.”

    •    “My moral compass is strong. I would not allow C.I.A. to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”

    •    “what I believe, sitting here today [today?], is that I support the higher moral standard we [who?] have [now?] decided to hold ourselves to.”
Asked whether she thought the CIA program of torture interrogation was immoral, Haspel refused to say that it was immoral, which is essentially to say that her strong “moral compass” would permit it in the future.  Further her hint that she interprets the law to be even less restrictive makes it sounds like she would view it as legal as well.  Therefore, what would hold her back right now is her assessment that the practice  is “controversial” (only if it is known about), and perhaps not presently a good “risk,” (weighed against others?) plus, lastly, that she supports “the higher moral standard we have” we have now “decided to hold ourselves to”— The thing is though that Haspel will be serving under a president who says that torture “absolutely works” and publicly communicated great enthusiasm about using it.  (Haspel, incongruously argued she did not expect the enthusiastic Trump to implement such a practices again.— There was also a fair amount floated in various reports that the reason Haspel earned the sobriquet Bloody Gina is because people suspect that she, herself, actually liked the cruelty.)
   
When it comes to the central question of whether it is wrong or right to torture people your nation holds captive, many will stop at the simple answer that it is, always without question, morally wrong.  Others, will go another step, invoking a more “hard-nosed” standard either proving their tough practicality either to themselves or the satisfaction of others: They will conclude that since torture doesn’t work there is nothing that can make it right.

We’ve known for hundreds of years that torture doesn’t work, because, at best, the tortured, to make the torture stop, will simply tell the torturer whatever they want to hear, which may or may not have any basis in truth.  As such, when asked about this at the senate hearing, Ms. Haspel did not make a risible, goofball statement directly refuting such wisdom from the ages.  Instead, this was how the exchange in question began:
“The president has asserted that torture works,” Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, said. “Do you agree with that statement?”

“Senator, I — I don’t believe that torture works,” Ms. Haspel said.
But then Haspel played cat and mouse with some `wink, wink, nudge, nudge,’ dog whistle type evasions suggesting that maybe torture does work . . .  and hence that torture is “moral,” for those who compliment themselves as being superior for basing their standards on hardnosed pragmatism:
GINA HASPEL: [continuing]. . .  I believe that in the CIA’s program—and I’m not attributing this to enhanced interrogation techniques—I believe, as many people, directors, who have sat in this chair before me, that valuable information was obtained from senior al-Qaeda operatives, that allowed us to defend this country and prevent another attack.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Is that a yes?

GINA HASPEL: No, it’s not a yes. We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaeda detainees. And I don’t—I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.
If you will, this hedging on Haspel’s part must be viewed as laying out nearly the only road by which Haspel can avoid conceding that torture is immoral.

A somewhat misleading headline from National Public Radio: Did this kind of inexactitude help Haspel get nominated?
The Times editorial, and others, offered one other last point of objection to confirming Haspel, which was that with her record at the CIA remaining secret and was being vetted by essentially nobody else. It was essentially being vetted by just Haspel herself serving as acting CIA Director during the process.  The editorial commented:
We are constrained in assessing Ms. Haspel because much about her record is not public. Ms. Haspel controls what of her record can be declassified, and most details released so far have been flattering. She should recuse herself and allow Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, to make the call on declassifying more of her record.
Ignoring that the notion that so many details of Haspel’s career and qualifications are unknown and that only flattering details were selectively released, the Times editorial nevertheless offered an insanely appeasing assessment of Ms. Haspel venturing that “Gina Haspel has shown she has all the qualities to become the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency” and that she was a “shoo-in for the top job.”  That kind of double-talk is certainly shoots yourself in the foot if your goal is to write a damning indictment to stop a confirmation of a nomination.  This kind of language is also the kind of thing that makes it easy for Democrats to cross the aisle to vote to approve a torturer to head the CIA.
Now to move on to what is most important to discuss.  There are other reasons to consider why Haspel’s known actions make her a very bad choice to head the CIA and they involve the destruction of the torture tapes; this is from a standpoint we will now address that went undiscussed by nearly everybody.

The destruction of the torture tapes is probably most often simply viewed as a coverup compounding the original wrongdoing of the torturing while reconfirming with emphasis how horrible the wrongdoing must have been given these efforts to hide it.  Haspel herself and those she was working with her offered a probably the less believed explanation and excuse for destroying the tapes.  That excuse was that she sought to destroy the tapes because their release would pose a security risk (or “potential security risk”) to the officers involved or that it would put agents in the field at risk.  It’s very hard to believe that the CIA can’t keep things secret enough and its agents secure without actually destroying the tapes.  Plus, as an intelligence gathering agency, it’s surprising to think that the CIA is ever inclined to zoom any information into a black hole from which it cannot retrieved in the future if it later wants it again for its own purposes.

Our most skilled horror film makers know that the best approach to keeping their audience on the edge of their seats is to avoid showing the flick’s monster; let the audience’s imagination do the work of conjuring up what is awful and their imagination will surely come up with something far more terrifying than the monster you can actually depict by supplying more information and images.  So, on its face, it might seem that destruction of the torture tapes is thus an obvious tactical mistake for those who would like to whitewash their torture sins.  Indeed, maybe it is, but what if, through misdirection, what gets imagined is not the worst that actually happened?

What’s that possible misdirection?: It’s routinely been suggested, typically in passing asides dropping references to natural assumptions, that even if the torture interrogators were making errant, troublesome and cruel decisions that the they were part of valiant efforts to discover the truth about 9/11 in a fraught time so as to protect the country against future attacks.  But should that be so quickly assumed?

So far, it’s only in a low-Googling article in Consortium News that have I been able to find writing that suggests another possibility that seems obvious to me and one that responsible people considering Haspel’s nomination should have been considering:
It’s been widely assumed the tapes were destroyed because of the potentially graphic nature of the abuse, or to hide the identity of those doing the torture. But there’s another distinct possibility: That they were destroyed because of the questions they document being asked. Do the torturers ask: “Is there another terrorist attack?” Or do they compel: “Tell us that Iraq and Al-Qaeda are working together”? The video evidence to answer that question has been destroyed by order of Haspel — with barely anyone raising the possibility of that being the reason.

See: Torture is Not Only Immoral, but a Tool for War, By Sam Husseini, May 8, 2018
Mr. Husseini’s article also helpfully supplied a beginning list of questions that ought to have been asked of Ms. Haspel during her nomination.  (They weren’t asked.)

What could a review of the tapes reveal about the agenda of the torturers and Haspel?  It is far from a fantasy to believe that those involved might have been involved in the efforts to build up false facts in order to lead the United States into war with Iraq, something the Bush administration wanted almost immediately and prior to collecting any reasons.  We know that this was going on in the United State government and intelligence community on a widespread basis.  As for whether these coercive interrogators actually wanted to track down what truly happened with respect to 9/11 and who was involved, we know that were many clear trails to be investigated that pointed toward Saudi Arabian involvement in bringing about the 9/11 events.  They were apparently were not earnestly pursued by our government.  In fact, on Democracy Now this past fall there was coverage of the thinking that the coercive interrogations were conducted for the purpose of supporting a “concocted” story about 9/11.

With the torture tapes assumed to be destroyed it does unleash our imaginations to imagine the worst.  In fact, as citizens of this country looking to be properly governed as well as responsible for our own government, we probably have a duty to engage in such speculative imaginings and follow up on their implications. The worst that can be imagined isn’t the inhumanity or brutal cruelty of the torture; it is that such inhumane and brutal practices might have been pursued to tell us and the rest of the world lies, not truth. . .

If that is something that Ms. Haspel believes can be a proper and moral objective of the CIA, then maybe that is the road by which she reaches her conclusion that torture is not necessarily immoral.  (CIA goals do include misinforming the public.)  Is that what Haspel actually thinks is moral?  We are in a difficult position when trying to guess: The story is that the tapes are destroyed and nobody asked Ms. Haspel to answer this question of what she thinks.  In fact, when the senate had a chance, there was a dearth of clamor to insist that Ms. Haspel answer such hard and difficult questions.