Monthly Archives: April 2019

Best of Enemies – See It

We saw the movie, Best of Enemies, last night. The theater was only about half full, which was too bad for the people who missed a really engaging story, based on a true story. The acting by Taraji P. Hensen and Sam Rockwell was Oscar-level with a nicely nuanced minor-role performance by Anne Heche as the wife of Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis.

Without giving away anything, the basic story is that, by 1971, Durham NC had desegregated most of its public facilities but not the schools. You will recall that the seminal Supreme Court school-desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954.

The elementary school attended by black activist Ann Atwater’s daughter is all but destroyed in a massive fire. There are hints that the Klan caused the fire but that line is never explored. No one messes with the Klan in 1971 Durham …. except Ann Atwater. Like some modern-day resisters, she takes plenty of grief but gives some back through sheer grit and determination.

The central drama centers around a “charrette” led by a black man. The Oxford English dictionary defines “charrette” as “A public meeting or workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem or plan the design of something.” In the movie it is the equivalent of a mediation involving the entire community with blacks and whites in the same room but largely sitting on opposite sides of the center aisle.  The goal is to address the issue of what to do with the black kids that must attend school somewhere to finish their academic year while their school is repaired. The logical choice, of course, is to move them to the closest “white school.”

I must say that we both thought there was considerable sugar-coating of the interactions in the charrette, given the level of racial hostility and general mistrust, not to mention endemic ignorance among most members of the white community. But there is drama enough.

What I found most interesting was the role of the Klan in the town. They had completely corrupted the power structure and were cruel and efficient in the methods they used to suppress dissent from their “white power” creed. Recalling my own upbringing in a large (for the times) southern city, I never saw the overt presence of the Klan but its “philosophy” was ever present in the mentality of most white adults and the children in whom they inculcated their deeply racist view of the world. I grew up in a town where there were still “whites only” and “colored only” water fountains side by side in the local Sears store.

In 1971 Durham, the ability of the Klan to function more or less in the open and unchallenged rested to a significant degree on the isolation of its victims. No digital communications network existed that could instantly transmit information or alarms to summon help. An individual person, particularly a woman, living alone was especially vulnerable. And if the Klan was good at nothing else, it knew very well how to exploit that isolation to instill terror without fear of reprisal.

If you see this excellent movie, and you should, observe the Klan at work and think about what made it possible, even in the presence of many right-thinking white people, to press its “whites are superior” message on everyone in the community. The movie will almost certainly lead you to think about the contemporary parallels in the racist tropes spread by the current president and the Republican Party as well as the emergence from the shadows of the Klan or Klan-like acolytes who have been in hiding all these years, waiting for their Grand Dragon to call them out again.

Redactions of Mueller Report Must Be Coded

Anyone with experience in redacted documents knows that every document tells a story, or at least part of one. A skilled redactor working, for example, to assert attorney-client privilege can render the story told by a document meaningless and destroy its role in piecing together the larger story.

As the day for release of the redacted version of Mueller’s report draws nearer, the relevant Congressional committees should make clear that merely blacking out sections of the report will not be accepted. If there are legitimate reasons for redactions, they should be coded with a legend that makes clear the basis for each and every redaction. The known candidates appear to be: (1) grand jury material required by law to remain undisclosed, (2) material that might reveal counter-intelligence content or methods that would damage national security, and (3) executive privilege asserted by the president.

Deciphering a document involving so many possible redaction rights will be next to impossible unless each is specifically supported by one of those three considerations. And each redaction must be limited strictly to what is absolutely required by the relevant privilege. If, for example, a statement is sourced to an intelligence branch but the statement itself is not sensitive, then the statement should not be redacted; only the source of the statement may be redacted.

The need for this approach is particularly acute in the case of the Mueller report because we know that the Attorney General is disposed to protect Trump at virtually any cost. We also have reason for suspicion because of reports that members of the Mueller investigative team have expressed concerns that the AG’s “summary” of the report did not properly convey the content of evidence related to, among other things, collusion with Russia. The White House has, typically, flip flopped like a fish on the dock as to whether it accepted that the Mueller report should be publicly disclosed. Trump would be more than happy with disclosure if he were as sure as he claims that the report exonerates him. Finally, the matter at hand involves the some of the most serious of possible misconduct by the nation’s chief executive, including possible grounds for impeachment.

For all those reasons at least, the coding of all redactions is essential to preserving the public’s right to know as much as possible about whether the president of the United States colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election and the evidence indicating that he obstructed justice in multiple public and still undisclosed actions.

Media Incompetence Rampant

I well understand how difficult traditional news reporting is in the current times. I have just starting reading Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism & Why It Matters Now to get the perspective of Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian during the most tumultuous period of digital disruption beginning in the late 1990s.

One consequence of the shift to electronic news distribution seems to have been a marked decline in the quality of the writing, reflecting in many cases a decline in the underlying thinking involved in learning, writing about and disseminating the “news.” It may be that the real cause of this change is the speed with which digital news output must be delivered in order to compete and be relevant in a landscape where there are literally dozens of outlets immediately available with versions, true or otherwise, of any given story. Another factor likely is that some stories are reported before they are “ripe,” in the sense that there has not been time enough to verify everything and the media entities figure they’ll just update the story when more information becomes available. Sometimes, the update never happens because everyone involved has moved on to other “breaking” stories. Everything is always “breaking” in this environment. “Breaking News” has become one of the most used and least meaningful headlines ever conceived. When every story is “breaking,” nothing is “breaking.”

Often the errors are subtle but still very important, particularly if they lend credence to versions of truth that are, in reality, questionable or outright false. A case in point, that inspired this post and is but one of many instances I’ve seen, is a recent article in Newsweek, https://bit.ly/2OP3KTY, entitled “Poll: More Than Half of Americans Say They Definitely Won’t Vote for Donald Trump in 2020 Despite Mueller Findings,” authored by Alexandra Hutzler on 3/28/19. I want to emphasize here that I am not picking on her; she is not alone in making the terrible mistake I am about to describe. Her article caught my attention because it seemed to contain some good news in the midst of what looked like, for a while, the Mueller debacle.

The thrust of the piece is that “fifty-three percent of voters say they will “definitely will not” cast their ballot for Trump in the 2020 election if he is the Republican Party’s nominee, according to a new poll by Quinnipiac University.” Fine; that’s great news from where I sit, though one would hope that by now the percentage of people who see through the criminal façade of the Trump administration would be must higher.

In any case, the article includes these lines:

“Despite special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that there was no collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, more than half of Americans say they definitely won’t be voting for the president in 2020 …. While the dark cloud of the Mueller investigation has been lifted from Trump’s presidency, the Quinnipiac survey showed that his Democratic rivals are gaining popularity in the 2020 race.” [emphasis added]

It is a fact that there is no evidence that Mueller made a finding of “no collusion” other than the “summary” declaration by the recently appointed Trump appointee Attorney General Barr who auditioned for the job through a gratuitous memo asserting, in essence, the total immunity of the president from accountability while in office and perhaps thereafter as well. No one other than Mueller and his team and various people in the Justice Department have seen the actual Mueller report. [I am assuming here that copies have not been surreptitiously provided to the White House, a proposition in which I have only limited confidence.]

Furthermore, we now have reports from inside the Mueller team expressing deep concern about the extent to which AG Barr has gamed the situation with overly generous (to Trump) interpretations of what the Mueller report actually says. There is simply no basis in reality for the media to take Barr’s version of the Mueller report as definitive or even reliable to any degree. To have done otherwise is at best sloppy journalism and at worst a form of pandering that raises serious questions about the trustworthiness of a news “institution” like Newsweek.

Perhaps Ms. Hutzler can be forgiven for a “rookie mistake,” as she graduated from college and was hired by Newsweek only last year. I’m happy to assume that with respect to her, but not with respect to the editors at Newsweek. This is one of the reasons for having editors, to ferret out implicit bias in stories. This mistake was not particularly subtle and, in the context of the immediate controversy surrounding the Barr gambit, it should have been caught and fixed before publication.

I emphasize again that this incident is just one of many that I have observed in reading the “news” about the Mueller report and the Barr flim-flam. Trump is, of course, delighted to see stories like this that support the “complete exoneration” theme he has been so desperate to reach for the past two years. But there is no exoneration, just more questions. All the more so as the Mueller investigators are now talking about the Barr maneuver. The least the mainstream media can do is avoid supporting a grossly false narrative until the evidence is in. This issue will be crucially important in the run-up to the 2020 reckoning when, it seems certain, there are going to be issues of further foreign interference, voter suppression and false claims of a “rigged election if I lose” by Trump.