Winners & Sinners

Kaiser on Shane, Maddow, Kaplan, and more

Winner: The New York Times’s Scott Shane. Just four months after remarks of F.B.I. director Robert Mueller were published on, two days after FCP asked Shane’s editor why they had never been reported in the Times, and one day after FCP wrote about them for the third time, the intrepid Timesman finally picked up the telephone and called the F.B.I. to find out whether Mueller had really said that he did not believe that torture had produced any information that disrupted attacks on the U.S. “The quote is accurate,” an F.B.I. spokesman confirmed, and Shane, today, finally managed to get that story into the Times.

Sinner: Scott Shane. Unfortunately, the same reporter spent much of the rest of today’s “news analysis” repeating the dubious claims of Bush, Cheney, and four former C.I.A. directors who assert that torture did produce important information.

Question: Why hasn’t Shane made the same elemental observation that a fine New York Times editorial made today: “Mr. Cheney claims that the waterboarding saved thousands of lives. Most accounts that don’t come from officials involved in the formation of those policies suggest that that is not the case”?

Answer: The people writing Times editorials are much better journalists than most of the reporters writing about torture for the news department. On most days, Shane exhibits the same degree of skepticism towards official sources that Judith Miller did during the run-up to the Iraq War.

Winner: Rachel Maddow, who actually understands what the torture debate is about. If you watched either of the interviews she conducted last night with author Ron Suskind or American interrogator Colonel Seven Kleinman, you learned more relevant facts about this subject than you would by reading a month’s worth of stories in The New York Times:

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

[Maddow with Suskind]

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

[Maddow with Colonel Steven Kleinman]

Here is a key passage of Maddow’s interview with Kleinman:

Maddow: Why would SERE methods be used in interrogation, if they were known to be used to have been designed to elicit false confessions?

Kleinman: At the very senior levels of government, surprisingly, the understanding of the complexities of interrogation is rare. It really is. It’s probably shaped more by the television show 24 than by practitioners of the art. There are a lot of people who don’t understand the difference between a model that would train people to resist harsh interrogation—and the purpose of that was to compel people to produce propaganda—and intelligence interrogation, which is designed to elicit cooperation and therefore timely, accurate, and comprehensive intelligence. They appear almost similar on the surface but there’s a very profound difference, and those two cannot be crossed.

Maddow: Defenders of the Bush administration interrogation program say that these harsh techniques were only used in extremely controlled circumstances on a very small number of people by only highly trained personnel. It was an elite practice. Does that accord to what you saw in Iraq and how you know these techniques were used?

Kleinman: Not at all. First of all, it is not an elite practice. ’Enhanced interrogation technique’—that term would connote an elite program, an advanced program, one conducted by sophisticated practitioners—and nothing could be further from the truth. The best interrogators in this country understand how to interrogate. And that’s largely a relationship-based, culturally elite, finessed approach. It’s systematic and it’s patient. That’s what produces information. To use SERE methods, or to think that one can use physicality or heavy stress to produce useful, reliable information is just a misnomer. It’s not backed up by operational experience, and it’s not backed up by one shred of scientific evidence.

Which is why statements like this one, in the story Shane and Mark Mazzetti wrote yesterday (and which led the paper!), are simply nonsensical:

Whether the same information could have been acquired using the traditional, noncoercive methods that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the military have long used is impossible to say, and former Bush administration officials say they did not have the luxury of time to develop a more patient approach, given that they had intelligence warnings of further attacks.

Winners: Peter Kaplan, legendary editor of the New York Observer, who announced yesterday that he would step down this summer after fifteen years in the post, and David Carr, who wrote a characteristically smart, stylish and sophisticated account of Kaplan’s career in this morning’s New York Times. Kaplan was responsible for scores of New York scoops, and he ignited the careers of more talented young journalists from the Observer’s launching pad than any other member of his generation. Kaplan also gets credit for inventing Full Court Press, because he was the first person to suggest that I should write it.

Of Kaplan, Carr wrote:

Known for his soaring soliloquies about the city he loved but did not live in — he resides in Westchester — Mr. Kaplan is a modern version of the fedora-wearing newsman, a man who saw his paper as a weekly libretto rendered in glamour and noir. During his tenure the longest for an editor in the newspaper’s 22-year history, The Observer played large for its size, catching Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., when he was a presidential candidate, taking the measure of Barack Obama by saying he was “articulate and bright and clean”; getting an interview with Jayson Blair at a time when his reporting for The New York Times was coming apart; and all but creating a television and movie franchise with its “Sex and the City” column.

Winner: C.J. Chivers, for a chilling battlefield account from Afghanistan, whose details suggest the gigantic task our new president has embarked upon—and how much it already resembles the quagmire of Vietnam.

Sinner: Peggy Noonan, for making the most inane remarks about the release of the Bush administration torture memos on any Sunday chat show (oh, such a high bar): “Some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking. … It’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, oh, much good will come of that.”

Winner: Democratic senator Russ Feingold, for taking Noonan to task: “I frankly have never heard anything quite as disturbing as her remark that was something to the effect of: ‘well sometimes you just have to move on.’”

Winner: David Barstow of The New York Times, who was awarded a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize last week for his blockbuster investigation of a huge Pentagon propaganda scandal, in which retired military officers alternated between spouting the Bush administration line on all of the major TV networks and collecting inside information for the military contractors who employed them so they could get more contracts connected to the war. Presented as objective experts on CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, these men actually work with “more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants” which are “all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror.”

Sinners: CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, who not only did absolutely nothing to reform this corrupt system—they never even reported Barstow’s accusations, or, this week, the fact that Barstow had won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. For a typically thorough rundown of this outrageous behavior by every major commercial broadcaster in America, see Glenn Greenwald’s excellent account.

Winners: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who during the past week have been even more indispensable than usual.

For the definitive takedown of Messrs. Cheney and Rove, don’t miss Stewart on “Balzheimers Disease.”

And for the funniest five minutes and fifty seconds of television in recent memory, see Colbert’s demolition of the anti-marriage equality movement. It starts at 3 minutes and 50 seconds into the episode.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.