I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Howard Kurtz speaks on Jose Padilla: just some leg shackles for the Dirty Bomber

(updated below)

Howard Kurtz, the media critic for both CNN and The Washington Post, participated in an online chat yesterday, and was asked about the Jose Padilla story in yesterday's New York Times. This is what ensued:

Princeton, N.J.: On the front page of the NY Times today is an article replete with pictures of the Bush administration's treatment of Joseph (sic) Padilla, an American citizen. Do you think the pictures will have a similar effect on the U.S. public as did the pictures of torture in Iraq?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. It depends on whether you believe that someone accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack should have to wear blacked-out goggles and have his legs shackled when he is taken outside solitary confinement for a dentist's appointment.

Kurtz's answer, brief though it may be, illustrates so very many things about our country and its media (h/t to this TPM commenter, who obviously knows how to bait).

Some aspects of Kurtz's answer are too self-evident to merit extended discussion, beginning with his painfully shallow and misleading understanding of what the entire Padilla story is about. To Kurtz, the uproar is about nothing other than whether an Accused Terrorist should have to wear leg shackles and "goggles" when being transported outside of his prison cell.

In Kurtz's world, the only thing this non-story really implicates are some routine matters involving prisoner security which only whiny human rights hysterics would be upset about. After all, what sensible person would ever question whether a Dangerous Prisoner should be subject to some reasonable security precautions when being transported? It's just some leg shackles and goggles. What's all the fuss about?

What's next? Will the ACLU also demand a color television for Al Qaeda murderers? Kurtz's "understanding" of this story is the rough equivalent of what a garden-variety right-wing blogger would say about it -- say, Kurtz's most favorite TV guest, John Hinderaker, or even Rush Limbaugh.

And then there is the inexcusable outright factual inaccuracy of claiming that Padilla's treatment can be justified on the ground that he is "accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack." It's fairly obvious that Howard Kurtz knows very, very little about what has happened to Jose Padilla.

Anyone who has paid even mild attention knows that when the Bush administration was finally forced to indict him, the criminal charges included none of the flamboyant accusations they had made in press conferences and via leaks over the last 3 years, including the accusation that he is a "dirty bomber." Contrary to Kurtz's claim, Padilla does not stand accused of that.

Even when confronted with that fact in a subsequent question by a reader much more informed than he was, Kurtz continued to display abject ignorance about the Padilla case on which he was opining:

Wilmington, N.C.: "It depends on whether you believe that someone accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack should have to wear blacked-out goggles and have his legs shackled when he is taken outside solitary confinement for a dentist's appointment."

None of the allegations against Mr. Padilla mention a dirty-bomb attack. Have I missed something?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the second graph of the NYT story says, "Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained without charges..."

Kurtz is ignorant of the most basic facts here because he is indifferent to this story. And he's indifferent to this story not because he has no opinion about it, but precisely because he does have an opinion about it -- a very clear and didactic opinion.

Kurtz's answer to the reader -- as well as his factual ignorance about this entire matter -- makes clear that he thinks there is nothing even notable, let alone objectionable, about the fact that the Bush administration imprisons American citizens and treats them for years like farm animals even though they've never been charged with (never mind convicted of) any crime. To Kurtz, that is not something even worthy of discussion.

When someone discusses the Padilla matter specifically -- or the general fact that the Bush administration imprisons people indefinitely, including U.S. citizens, with no charges and often in the most inhumane manner -- it is quite common to hear expressions of incredulity, genuine bafflement, over the fact that not only is our government engaging in such conduct, but that it is prompting so little public outcry. I'm rarely able to avoid talking about this issue without making that point -- why isn't this most patent violation of our country's core principles, whereby our fellow citizens are being imprisoned and tortured by our government with no charges, prompting genuine anger?

This is the reason why. Over the last five years, the media (with some notable and noble exceptions) essentially embraced the central premise of the Bush administration -- that in order for us to be protected, we must place our faith in the Leader and know that he is doing Good, because he wants to protect us.

He may err at times. He might even go a little too far or be a little zealous in what he does to make us safe. But there are Very, Very Bad People in the world who want to kill us -- Padilla is "accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack"! -- and the Leader needs the power to get his hands dirty and take care of them. The last thing we should be concerned with is what the Leader does to them.

With those premises snugly in place, "journalists" like Kurtz have spent the last five years doing the opposite of what they were supposed to be doing -- rather than skeptically scrutinize the conduct and motives of the Leader, they became his most enthusiastic followers. The President's promises of protection from the Scary Terrorists Who Want to Kill You resonated most loudly among the frightened, coddled media elites like Kurtz, who were more than eager to fulfill their end of the bargain by assuming the core goodness and honesty of the Government and never questioning that basic premise.

For the media to have any worthwhile function at all, it needs to be the least trusting group in the country, not the most. Their principal function is to serve as an adversarial watchdog over those in power, informing Americans when the Government's claims and behavior are suspect. That's just Journalism 101. It is vital that, if anything, they err -- strongly -- on the side of excess skepticism. Placing blind faith and trust in the actions of political leaders is the antithesis of the journalistic ethos, but those are the attributes which have been driving most of the nation's most influential political journalists throughout the Bush Presidency.

As Walter Pincus' belated though still welcome Post article this week illustrates, the time of reckoning for journalists -- an examination of the indispensable and corrupt role they played in enabling what has happened over the last five years -- is rapidly approaching. Journalists and similar types are beginning to acknowledge the almost complete co-opting of the media by the Bush administration over the last five years. There is, in some journalistic circles, a burgeoning (and very well-earned) shame over the entirely voluntary transformation of the media into a subservient propaganda arm of the most extreme elements of the Bush agenda.

The Bush administration was able to invade Iraq, imprison and torture people (including U.S. citizens), and repeatedly and openly break the law not because the Howard Kurtz's of our country failed in their duty as journalists (although they did, profoundly). It goes beyond that. They affirmatively believed in those things -- and in many cases, still do -- every bit as much as the President and his government did, and they worked in harmonious concert with the administration to do as much, if not more, to enable it.

Why isn't there more of a controversy over the radicalism of the Bush movement? Ask Howard Kurtz. It's just some goggles and leg shackles for a Terrorist. What's there to discuss?

UPDATE: Credit where it's due - one authortarian Bush follower has discovered a very likely and reasonable explanation as to why Padilla was forced to wear those "goggles." And just to be clear: she did not say this in jest.

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