Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bombshell? Doug Frantz off to Istanbul for WSJ

Re-inventing himself almost instantaneously, Doug Frantz, managing editor for the LA Times until 6 July, will soon be shepherding a half dozen hacks in the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal, starting in September; his summer vacation presumably will be spent with his wife, Catherine Collins, toiling over "the Nuclear Jihadist" a co-written tome about AQ Khan, the nuclear smuggler behind the Islamic bomb.
Whether Frantz will answer to Rupert Murdoch remains to be seen. It'd be a shame if he's required to put the bull into Istanbul.

Military mindset spins the press

The US military's snarlingly defensive spin-meisters showed their true colors in a Haditha talking points memo written by four officers last January. It was part of the evidence submitted at a Camp Pendleton hearing to determine whether some US Marines should face court martial for murder after 24 Iraqi civilians were killed.

The NY Times ran excerpts from a five-pager that mulled over how to respond to Time's veteran war reporter, Tim McGirk. Stonewalling by the military put the Haditha story on the backburner for several weeks until Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) broadcast his misgivings that these killings of old folks and children in their beds might have been "in cold blood". Was there a cover-up?
NY Times reporter Paul von Zielbauer, attended the preliminary military hearing in San Diego then highlighted how the marines were dismissive and suspicious of anyone who confronts them with difficult questions. They conceal rather than inform, and obviously prefer that their heroics are extolled by embedded hacks. The Los Angeles Times had quoted from part of the same scary memo last week.

McGirk: How many marines were killed and wounded in the I.E.D. attack that morning?

Memo: If it bleeds, it leads. This question is McGirk’s attempt to get good bloody gouge on the situation. He will most likely use the information he gains from this answer as an attention gainer.

McGirk: How many marines were involved in the killings?

Memo: First off, we don’t know what you’re talking about when you say “killings.” One of our squads reinforced by a squad of Iraqi Army soldiers were engaged by an enemy initiated ambush on the 19th that killed one American marine and seriously injured two others. We will not justify that question with a response. Theme: Legitimate engagement: we will not acknowledge this reporter’s attempt to stain the engagement with the misnomer “killings.”

McGirk: Are the marines in this unit still serving in Haditha?

Memo: Yes, we are still fighting terrorists of Al Qaida in Iraq in Haditha. (“Fighting terrorists associated with Al Qaida” is stronger language than “serving.” The American people will side more with someone actively fighting a terrorist organization that is tied to 9/11 than with someone who is idly “serving,” like in a way one “serves” a casserole. It’s semantics, but in reporting and journalism, words spin the story.)

Click here for more.

Jemima Lewis on Brit hacks vs supine Yank journos

Journalists in this country are despised, and we know it. Indeed, we embrace our lowly status with a perverse, distinctly British pride: we call ourselves "hacks", lest anyone should think we take ourselves seriously, and delight in Fleet Street legends of debauchery and low cunning. British journalism - both the profession and the end product - is tough, unscrupulous and, at its best, riotously good fun.

In America, different standards prevail. When I went to work at a current affairs magazine in New York a couple of years ago, my editor warned me that I was in for a culture shock. "American journalists," he said, "believe they belong to a kind of priesthood. Ever since Watergate, we have seen ourselves as guardians of the truth. That," he added ruefully, "is why our newspapers are so boring."

Until you have tried ingesting The New York Times with your breakfast, you do not know the meaning of ennui. Nicknamed the Grey Lady - as a term of endearment - and boasting the priggish motto "All the news that's fit to print", it is the sine qua non of sober, morally upright journalism. And this respectability is its greatest weakness: it is far too polite to be subversive.

When President Bush was making the case for the invasion of Iraq, The New York Times - supposedly a fierce critic of this administration - swallowed the White House propaganda as if it were medicine from Mary Poppins. As it later admitted in a hand-wringing editorial, it simply accepted what it was told about WMD, because it came from "official" sources.

So did some in the British press - but there were at least plenty of sceptical, irreverent and downright belligerent voices making themselves heard. Our broadcast media, too, acquitted themselves dispassionately - at least by contrast with the feel-good patriotism that saturated the American TV news. There is a thin line between respectable and supine, and American journalism has settled on the wrong side. Our own press is no less obsessed with celebrities, but we specialise - too much so, you might think - in tearing them down. In America, to be famous is to be worshipped unquestioningly. Hollywood stars demand copy approval, and get it - which is why you will never read an interesting celebrity interview in an American magazine.
from the Independent

lamenting the limey limelight

Parting shot of Britain's Tony Blair, erstwhile prime minister and spinmeister:

""The fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever, hunts in a pack.

"In these modes, it is like a feral beast just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out."

Friday, June 29, 2007

Bill Blanko - Are we Feral Beasts or Pussycats?

Bill Blanko, political correspondent for The Guardian of London, lets loose on Tony Blair's take on the media and muses on why the former PM was "one of the great comic talents of his generation"...
Feral beast? Badge of honour!

I hadn't even had my first livener of the day in the Press Bar. (But then the poster that greets you when you walk in there these days offering "Sicilian summer rosé" is enough to put you off alcohol. Well, almost.)

It was 11.10am when the Downing Street email dropped in my inbox. "Prime minister's lecture on public life at Reuters," it said.

Lecture? Now I know we didn't come into the lobby to listen to politicians make speeches, but I was curious. I flicked on the TV and there he was. "It's not a whinge about how unfair it all is," he pleaded.

Now why is it that when a politician says he's not whingeing you instinctively know that the next 20 minutes are going to be one long whinge?

Is it because after more than a quarter of a century in the lobby, four prime ministers (nearly) and seven Downing Street press secretaries (Ingham, O'Donnell, Meyer, Haslam, Campbell, Smith and Kelly) some of us are a tad cynical?

Ah yes, cynicism. It wasn't long before he was moaning about that. I counted at least three mentions of the word in the space of a couple of minutes mid-speech.

Then came the priceless gem, which reinforced why our dear, departing prime minister has been one of the great comic talents of his generation. The Blair definition of the modern media: "It's like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits."

You could hear the guffaws of laughter from every office along the Burma Road corridor in the press gallery.

I was on the floor, legs in air, like the Cadbury's Smash men in the TV advert. "Oh prime minister, you are a wag! Stop it, please! It's hurting!"

I was just about back on my chair when he ended his rant by saying: "I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters..." He set me off again. I almost fainted in agony, I was laughing so much.

I just about made it to the bar, breathlessly, before a family-sized heart-starter, followed by another one... and another, helped me regain my composure as I wiped away the tears of mirth.

Feral beasts? We all chortled as Clive topped up the pre-lunch stiffeners. Surely not? Tame pussy cats, more like. And, piped up one clever so-and-so, isn't "feral beasts" a tautology? Probably, we concurred.

Cynical? Us? So it was the media who got Peter Mandelson into bother over his mortgage and passports, was it? We told Jo Moore to write her "good day to bury bad news" memo, did we?

We encouraged David Blunkett to have a fling with that posh totty from the Spectator, did we? We tipped off Cherie that Peter Foster was just the sort of chap to get a good deal on some flats in Bristol? We called in the cops over cash-for-honours, did we?

Call me old fashioned. (All right, you're old fashioned.) But if most lobby correspondents had gone to their editor and said they had a great splash about how this evil dictator in the Middle East had these weapons of mass destruction that he could launch on Britain in 45 minutes we'd have been told to go and have a lie down, cut out the third bottle at lunch and go and find a proper story.

It was only because Mr Blair and the No 10 spin machine did the sexing up on that story that it got into the papers at all.

Down on the terrace - where the Pimm's and champagne from the pavilion bar helps to clear the head after lunch, I find - there has been much banter between Labour MPs and lobby hacks about he PM's speech.

"Feral beasts and proud of it!" we all declared. "Badge of honour!"

"Raw nerve?" countered one gloating Labour MP. "You can dish it out, but you can't take it," said another.

"Rubbish," I retorted. "We've been called la crème de la scum. And, don't forget, we put the 'as' in gravitas."

Labour MPs would never admit it, but their beloved Tony (beloved now he's quitting in under a fortnight) has had a much easier ride from the media than John Major or Neil Kinnock.

Norma Major once complained to a group of us on a foreign trip how beastly we all were to her husband. "Oh, no," we all said, innocently. (All right, perhaps not innocently.) "You should see what we do to Kinnock."

We didn't do a bad job on Major, though. Who can forget the lobby's spectacular turning over of both Major and his press spokesman, Gus O'Donnell, on his notorious Tokyo trip. (Not that his painful experiences as Major's press secretary have done his career any harm.)

We stitched the PM up magnificently over his off-the-record comments about Tory rebels (who can forget the "flapping of white coats" jibe) during a Saturday evening reception at the British embassy, as I recall.

Some of us (so they tell me!) took a full shorthand note of his sad bleating about his troubles when he came back from his first class seat to steerage to talk to us on the plane.

Every word went into the papers the next day. One lobby correspondent's tape recorder played a blinder too ("a few apples short of a picnic") as he lambasted his Tory tormentors once again as he prepared for a TV interview, with the great Michael Brunson, I think it was.

And, as for Kinnock, some of the lobby's finest hours came on his disastrous Washington trips, one to see Ronald Reagan and the second, George Bush Sr.

On one trip we were all filing from the phone booths behind the briefing room in the White House. (Facilities, incidentally, which in those days made the Press Gallery look palatial.)

The White House press corps, a vegetarian bunch of toadies who wouldn't last five minutes on the political staff of a Fleet Street newspaper, gasped open mouthed as they overheard the lobby's finest discussing how to report the Kinnock humiliation. For it was a humiliation, naturally, otherwise we wouldn't have been sent 3,000 miles to cover it.

"Gee, you guys play by different rules," said one naive White House correspondent. "Yeah," snarled one of our group. "There aren't any."

We "feral beasts" now lie in wait for our next prey, Gordon Brown. Blair's "more spinned against than spinning" plea was so ludicrous because he tried to take on the media and ultimately lost.

I hear Gordon and his No 10 press secretary, Mike Ellam, are planning big changes. One that will be welcomed is abandoning the pointless trek to the Foreign Press Association for the 11am lobby briefing.

You need a swift one in the Red Lion on the way back to the Press Bar after that hike. There's also talk of the Friday afternoon briefings for Sunday papers - axed by Alastair Campbell a few years ago - being revived.

Talking of Alastair (well, he does all the time, so why shouldn't the rest of us), I wouldn't mind betting he wrote the Blair speech, though Blair's spokesman, Tom Kelly, denied that. Well, he would, wouldn't he?

Here's the giveaway: "It's a triumph or a disaster. A problem is 'a crisis'. A setback is a policy 'in tatters'. A criticism 'a savage attack'." Now, does that sound like a politician, or a former tabloid political editor?

As one lobby hack put it after Kelly had endured a half-hour grilling on the speech at the afternoon lobby briefing: "Tony Blair was facing a crisis last night after a savage attack on the media left his policy in tatters."

Now that's what I call an intro.

Another large one please, Clive. I still can't stop laughing...

Thursday June 14, 2007
Guardian Unlimited