Friday, July 29, 2011

Bloggers vs. Old Media: Who Wins and Why. By Andrew Kreig

by Andrew Kreig


I was very glad to receive an invitation from Professor Ferrada de Noli to adapt my recent Washington status report on the blogging sector here to Professors Blogg. The growth of Arianna Huffington’s Huffington Post in tandem with the scandal revelations regarding the Rupert Murdoch empire of ”old media” provide an important contrast of global importance. 

More personally, I am thrilled to hear that my good friend who provides the “Professors Blogg” has returned refreshed from a vacation and his recovery from a serious bicycle accident this spring. Freedom lovers throughout the world are inspired by his voice and experience. As a reminder of Sweden’s bizarre WikiLeaks investigation that brought us all together last winter at this site, a big part of the story is the usually hidden alliance between “old media” and the leading political parties. They have worked out powerful mechanisms through the years to control the limits of debate on all manner of issues. We see that in the United States now where almost any discussion of restoring the Bush tax cuts on the rich is verboten as an option to restore financial balance, and all discussion is on cutting spending even though opinion polls say the public wants the wealthy to sacrifice also. But bloggers have the ability to change debate, whether armed by secret official information (as in WikiLeaks revelations), or simply providing a megaphone to one reasonable person’s insights.

It’s not easy to do, of course. A story propounded by Murdoch reaches millions, whereas even the most notable bloggers would be fortunate to reach a few thousand. Nonetheless, the distortions of reality by the so-called “Power Structure” have gotten so extreme that even a few isolated bloggers can disrupt evil schemes, especially if we as bloggers occasionally take time from our own writing to try to recognize others doing important work. For that reason, my column reprinted below discusses two regional U.S. bloggers, Roger Shuler in Alabama and George Gombossy in Connecticut, who is a Hungarian-born journalist building what he hopes to become a nationwide consumer affairs, web-based news network. They are not famous, like Huffington or Murdoch, but are part of the larger story spanning our continents. Shuler and I worked closely to break the story that the notorious U.S. political strategist Karl Rove not only called for the death of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange but has been a political advisor to Sweden’s governing Moderate Party. Gombossy’s CT (as in Connecticut) Watchdog consumer affairs website then took the daring but appropriate step of reporting our next story about a CIA tie to the law firm of Assange’s accusers. That paved the way for Sweden’s news websites to report these developments. This broke the highly selective reporting on the case by Sweden’s traditional print and broadcast media, as Professor de Noli’s comprehensive analysis illustrated earlier this year.

Frankly, the treatment below may be too long for all but the most devoted researchers, To shorten the item, we’ll eliminate the research links, which are available on my Justice Integrity Project site here: Yet there is an important one worth highlighting here:

Entitled, What Rupert Murdoch Means For You Personally, author Russ Baker provides 12 important points about what the scandals in the United Kingdom really mean. Number one on this list is “He has transformed world politics for the worse.”  There is a U.S. (and possibly international) expression “baker’s dozen.” It usually means that someone has added one more item to usual 12 to ensure that the customer gets good value.

In that spirit, I add one more reason to Baker’s list regarding the importance of the Murdoch “hacking” scandal in the United Kingdom. In my view, the scandal provides hope for what we’re all trying to do in providing basic information and free-thinking commentary. Here’s why: For Murdoch and his minions, even their many millions of readers and viewers are not enough. They needed the additional advantage of illegal surveillance on politicians, celebrities and even ordinary people.

Surveillance on politicians is a particularly dangerous practice in terms of jeopardizing freedom, Surveillance leads to blackmail, which leads to public policy helping the blackmailer and not the public. These enemies of freedom are weak, and they have been exposed. Stay tuned for more.

Bloggers vs. Old Media: Who Wins and Why.

By Andrew Kreig

Tim Armstrong and Arianna HuffingtonAn impressive National Press Club speech by Arianna Huffington last week found its converse in Rupert Murdoch’s meltdown over the phone hacking scandal. The Huffington Post founder and AOL CEO and Chairman Tim Armstrong, left, portrayed a bright future after AOL's $315 million purchase last winter of the company she founded and leads as an AOL subsidiary.

Their story contrasted sharply with Murdoch's firings and financial reverses following a growing scandal that prompted the Sunday arrest of one of Murdoch's top aides and the resignation of London's police chief. A member of Parliament described the situation this way: “The water is now lapping around the ankles of the Murdoch family.” Murdoch, 80, is scheduled to testify with his son, James, on July 19 before Parliament. He is portrayed below at the World Economic Forum in a photo courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Away from the headlines, last week showed landmark progress for Legal Schnauzer, an Alabama blog on legal refoRupert Murdochrm that recorded its one millionth page view. This is a remarkable achievement for my friend Roger Shuler, who runs a terrific site that he started four years ago as a public service.

Similar success is reported by CT Watchdog founder George Gombossy, my colleague at the Hartford Courant for many years and now publisher of my commentaries on national affairs. Gombossy announced this month the launch of Watchdog sites in Florida and Massachusetts, plus job openings for staff. He and Shuler got their start as highly regarded journalists at metro dailies -- and they typify the leadership in the new web-based news platforms that the public needs to bypass today’s information gatekeepers in the traditional media. In recent years, both Shuler and Gombossy lost their jobs by fighting on behalf of readers and for strong professional standards. 

So, their current success benefits many people. Kindly click to the next page for details. Last year, our Justice Integrity Project reported to you that part of our mission must be to cover news about the news media. That’s because no Spiked Covermeaningful legal reform can occur if the public doesn’t know about abuses. Why won’t traditional media report them in a sustained way? Major cutbacks are causing huge cutbacks in reporting at local and national levels. 

Most of the major newspaper chains have closed their Washington news bureaus, which used to be housed at the century-old Press Club and its environs. These days, news organizations are increasingly run on a bottom-line basis, as I reported a quarter-century ago in my investigative book, Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America's Oldest Newspaper. 

Bedeviled by debt from over-expansion a few years ago, news organizations now frequently self-censor themselves in fear of antagonizing advertisers or powerful allies in business or government. The long-obvious mutual back-scratching between traditional media and politicians exploded into public view recently with the phone hacking scandal. This centers in part on efforts by Murdoch employees in the United Kingdom illegally to obtain private information about politicians, celebrities and other news sources that could be leveraged for power, advertising and newspaper sales. 

For such reasons, the progress last week of these three web-based start-ups is gratifying evidence of breakthroughs on self-censorship by the media restricting the information we need for sound public policy. Most prominent was the speech by the Huffington Post's founder and Armstrong, who are portrayed in the photo above by Press Club volunteer Al Teich taken on July 15, the birthday for both speakers. They described how their venture has put 1,300 editorial staff on the payroll, covering both local news (largely via AOL’s super-local “Patch” service) along with an expanding array of Huffington Post coverage areas. One of these initiatives, symbolically but coincidentally, was launch of a UK HuffPo edition. This was almost at the same time Murdoch closed the News of the World, his largest-circulation UK paper, because of its years of phone-hacking scandals. These are being increasingly exposed after years of cover-up by police. The Huffington Post account of her speech is below, with a video link.

Obama Inaugural PhotoIn fairness, any diversified company has a mixed record. Armstrong confessed that AOL declined in many respects following its iconic early successes. Armstrong made the case that news and other information content will become AOL's strong point. I have a ring-side view of this as a Huffington Post blogger since it front-paged a scoop of mine about the Obama Inauguration in 2009, Why the President ‘Stepped Out’ During His Inaugural Parade. I illustrated the piece with my photo at right of the President and First Lady (in a yellow suit) as they emerged from their white limo. they can be seen strolling behind the limo, just to the right of the center flagpole on the part of the avenue between the National Archives, at top, and the Navy Memorial.
Yet the American Society of Journalists and Authors, my favorite writer's group for a quarter century of membership, and my New York literary agent are among those who oppose my writing for free, as I have done for Huffington Post.

The counter-arguments are even more persuasive to me. For my investigative work, Huffington Post is more like a television guest appearance (which are unpaid by tradition) than a paid magazine assignment that has publication in the distant future after the news has lost its edge. For those reasons, I simply congratulated Huffington for her progress after her speech and thanked her for the opportunity to publish significant material about abuses in the justice system. Among them are my revelations regarding the federal prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. One in 2009 was, Siegelman Deserves New Trial Because of Judge’s ‘Grudge’, Evidence Shows….$300 Million in Bush Military Contracts Awarded to Judge’s Private Company. Sadly, this is the kind of report that the traditional media are extremely reluctant to report.  It centers on truly powerful people and companies, far more important the typical elected politician.

Regarding the two other web-based success stories:  Alabama's Roger Shuler published a retrospective July 15 in which he said he is glad he started his blog four years ago to chronicle injustices such as the Siegelman case even though he alleges that his blog, undertaken entirely on his own time and at his own expense, prompted the University of Alabama unjustly to fire him after 19 years on the job. His work as a university communications specialist followed his long career earlier as a reporter at the Birmingham News. Shuler says that the same right-wing forces in Alabama that increasingly control the Governor's mansion, judiciary, traditional newspapers and other opinion-leaders pressured for his firing from his university job as retribution for his commentaries. Similarly, they exacted forced the unjust firing of his wife from her job, he says on both his column and in pending litigation. The couple is barely scraping by financially, he writes, with the site providing no income despite nearly daily blogs.

But Shuler says that on the whole he is glad he stood up for his and others' rights with his blog, which is named Legal Schnauzer in honor of Murphy, at right, his now-deceased canine companion during many investigations.
Roger Shuler and Murphy
His blog is often reprinted in national blog sites, is invaluable reading for the news-behind-the-news regarding law-related Deep South political controversies, particularly in Alabama. His first blog in 2007 was, Is "Your Honor" Really Honorable? It focused on a vital but often-ignored problem in law: an unfair judge, which Shuler believed he was experiencing regarding a dispute with his next-door neighbor.  The column illustrates his compelling personal touch.  We have swapped research tips on several major investigations, such as the story we jointly broke last December that Republican strategist Karl Rove was a political advisor to Sweden's governing party. Sweden took extraordinary measures to launch a manhunt for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for questioning in a sex case shortly after Rove called for Assange's death for revealing U.S. government secrets.

I read Shuler's blogs on other topics daily, and am linking them to my websites so others can benefit from his extraordinary skills and civic commitment. Today's, for example, reports what he describes as a recent threat to attack him in retribution for a column about former Gov. Bob Riley.  Shuler says that he's become used threats through the years, including against his dog, but this one stands out. Many other capable and dedicated bloggers are working around the nation. They include Glynn Wilson, publisher of the Locust-Fork News-Journal in Alabama and a pioneer in breaking revelations in 2007 regarding the Justice Department's frame-up of Siegelman.

But I'd like to focus in some depth on the remarkable story of my friend George Gombossy. His commitment deserves even more recognition than the New York Times coverage he received over his firing from the Courant as consumer affairs editor for trying to report that Connecticut's state attorney general's office was investigating consumer complaints against the paper's largest advertiser, Sleepy's, a large retailers of mattresses.
Gombossy had been the longtime business editor at the paper where he had worked nearly four decades. So he was no cub reporter. He was a consumer advocate widely promoted by his state's largest newspaper in 2009 when he undertook what should have been a routine column about how officials were investigating complaints that Sleepy's was selling used mattresses as new. One complaint alleged that the purchaser obtained bedbugs via such a resold mattress. But the column displeased the paper's new management, who were installed by Sam Zell's management team after he acquired the parent Tribune Companies. Under the new set-up, the same executives from the Tribune's Fox News TV affiliated would run Connecticut's largest newspaper. The joint operation was possible only because of a waiver of cross-ownership rules that the Federal Communication Commission granted the Tribune in late 2008 just before the Bush Administration left office so that Zell could buy the properties. The waiver was highly controversial. Republicans voted 3-2, with Democrats predicting dire consequences for the public in concentrating so much media power in one owner. In Connecticut, the Tribune's properties also included the leading chain of alternative weekly papers in major cities.

George GombossyAs a personal matter, Gombossy likes to say he leans conservative after fleeing communist Hungary with his family in the 1950s, serving in Germany during the Vietnam War-era [Editor's note: We corrected our reporting error in describing his service here intiially] and generally approving free-market, pro-business policies in private during his long career.  But he sees no contradiction between conservatism and standing up for journalistic principles, especially involving a paper that was the nation's largest during the Revolutionary War and which has enjoyed an otherwise stellar history of achievement through generations of accomplished journalists. The Tribune and Courant executives dispute that they fired Gombossy to protect their advertising revenue. But they made the curious admission in court that they are under no legal obligation to tell readers the truth.

Meanwhile, Gombossy is pursuing precisely that reader mission both in pending litigation against the Courant and by making the advertiser-supported Watchdog a consumer advocate on both a regional and national scale.
As for Murdoch, his travails are being widely reported, and I''ll be brief here. First, I've long viewed him as a ruthless political wheeler-dealer whouses news organizations such as Fox News primarily to augment his wealth and power, not for journalistic purposes. On a lighter note, Murdoch used to own a condominum on the same floor in Washington where I live and where I served for years on the condo board. Murdoch rarely stayed there, and doubtless acuired it for political and business reasons.

His condo had a magnificent view of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Justice Department and National Archives similar to the view in the photo above of the Obama Inaugural from a nearby balcony. It used to strike me as ironic that Murdoch's elaborate renovations for his party palace intensely irritated U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-FL), his downstairs neighbor.  A powerful leader on the Armed Service Committee before her passing, Fowler repeatedly complained at our condo board meetings about noise from Murdoch's unit. In case it matters, your scribe moved to this locale in 1992 shortly after its construction when prices were more attuned to commoners than to press lords.

ERic HolderMore seriously, Murdoch and his financial empire are justifiably under intense investigation under both sides of the Atlantic. However, a key part of our Project's non-partisan mission is to raise questions about Murdoch's treatment and to urge our readers to keep an open mind. It troubles me, for example, that federal officials such as Attorney Gen. Eric Holder announced with great fanfare the beginning of an investigation against Murdoch -- but piously insist in other cases that they can have no comment because those matters "are under investigation." Similarly, evidence of phone hacking in the United Kingdom is not the same as solid evidence of similar conduct in the United States.  As a prediction, Murdoch still has many powerful friends and will doubtless mount a comeback as long as his health remains sound. He is not rally facing a funeral, and does not need help from the public. Instead, we in the public and media serves our own best interests in these dangerous times if all investigations, including his, are undertaken fairly.

So, let the games begin. But only under the kind of due process and fair-and-balanced commentary that we would each want for ourselves in a similar position -- and for our country at all times.

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