Wednesday night was the launch of the nonprofit I’ve mentioned before, Public Business. There were some short planned speeches from myself and our board co-chair Anya Schiffrin, but the highlight for me was the discussion that followed, in which audience members got up, open mic style, and riffed on the idea of public interest business reporting. I was gratified, stimulated and moved and would like to see that style of free discussion as a regular feature of our events. Check it out yourself. H/t Mike for the video.
I return from blogger exile with a post at Foreign Exchange on the French role in Libya:
It’s a nice idea, perhaps, that after Bernard Kouchner, France’s leading advocate of liberal interventionism, has left office, the President who fired him suddenly comes around to the doctrine. It’s an even nicer idea for nerdy foreign policy writers that France’s intellectual mascot, Bernard-Henri Lévy, played the decisive role, a notion BHL is quite happy to entertain. But given the French government’s history of being relatively skeptical of this type of argumentation, you must forgive my looking for some material factors.
What factors? In my post, I posit the blowback from Tunisia, France’s peculiar energy mix, and its Mediterranean geography. Read it here.
The Raymond Davis saga in Pakistan is far from over, and I’ll have a piece sooner or later on the implications, broadly, for US-Pak relations. But there’s a meta-story that’s worth taking note of now: the coverage of the story in the Pakistani and international press. Essentially, Davis’ CIA status was being floated in the Pakistani press for several weeks before it ‘broke’ in the Guardian. It turned out that the New York Times and other American news organizations had deliberately held back the information at the request of U.S. authorities. Though a similar request was made of the Guardian, the paper’s editors and reporters refused.
As a reader of the Pakistani press, I’d seen the CIA claim, but in part because of the easy way in which the CIA is used as a bogeyman in Pakistani political discourse, I must admit I was skeptical of the claim until the Guardian verified it. As a critic of the Times’ inconsistent policy about withholding information for ‘the safety of the subject,’ I’m disappointed, but unsurprised, by their call on this one. Points to the Guardian for getting it right. For more on the details, this video from Al Jazeera’s media-watch show, Listening Post, is good:
The story is amusing coming on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s takedown of the American media at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. Clinton asserted that the U.S. is losing the global information war because of the frivolity in American journalism: you don’t feel when watching American news stations, she says, that you are getting real news.
Problematically, one reason American news outlets don’t deliver enough ‘real news’ is because they comply too readily with the intelligence agencies trying to win that information war. Yet another example of misaligned agendas coming from the State Department and the CIA.
Returning from a brief (9 days) blogging hiatus with a post at Foreign Exchange. The subject: a panel I was asked to speak on at IESE’s sustainable business conference in Barcelona this weekend. My topic was ‘economic peace and the private sector’s role in fostering political stability.’ An excerpt:
Specifically, the reductive tendency leads us to place emphasis on macroeconomic growth as a cure-all, when as we’ve seen in Obasanjo’s Nigeria or Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Musharraf’s Pakistan, growth can correlate quite easily with increasing political instability and conflict. For one thing, there’s the question of distribution, of how much growth is trickling down the bottom of the economic ladder to those most likely to be embroiled in crime or violence.
But even if ‘economic growth’ is replaced by a genuine focus on job creation and the building of a stable middle class, a critical challenge remains. In a society which has chosen—and this is an ideological choice—to invest its resources in militarism or theocracy but not in education or health care, an angry young man with a steady income still can’t spend it providing for his family: the services he needs aren’t there to be purchased.
Instead, they’re available to him for free from the same crowd of ‘non-state actors’ responsible for his country’s turmoil. In other words, those actors—be they mobsters or terrorists or warlords—aren’t grafting an abstract ideology onto his poverty and rage; they are producing an alternative society, complete with the services the state does not provide. It’s an ideological battle, not an economic one, to transfer a whole society’s focus and collective, public, wealth into building the social structures that make an income valuable. Without those, a little money’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
You can read the rest here.
One postscript: left to my own devices, I’d probably have parachuted into Barcelona for a day; attended the conference and jetted out. With encouragement and company from qwghlm, I took four whole days off work. I didn’t check Twitter and Google Reader every 5 minutes; I missed thousands of tweets and hundreds of news stories; and when we got back and I caught up, I found that nothing had fundamentally changed on the big stories I’d been following. Gaddafi? Still in power. Raymond Davis? Still in legal limbo. Me? Recharged and ready to report on both.
Post at Foreign Exchange this evening on Bahrain:
As Khalil Al-Marzooq a senior opposition leader and the first deputy to the speaker of Parliament put it to me earlier in the week, “Our demands are not born of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. Our demands date back to 2001.”
That is when, for the uninitiated, Bahrain adopted the National Action Charter, a truce intended to bring an end to over 10 years of violent political uprisings. Those uprisings joined together liberals, leftists and Islamists, but protesters referred to their movement as an intifada and it did develop a sectarian character, not least because a Sunni regime hit back particularly hard in Shi’ite areas. This is an important point: whether or not the content of political protest is Islamist, the demographics of government-opposition relations in Bahrain are sectarian in a way that has not been true in the countries we’ve seen flare up so far this year.
The other two lessons? Find them here.
Belated post at Foreign Exchange on a talk I attended last week about problems in human rights data collection. A snippet:
In his lecture, Ball presented a number of cases like this, from Kosovo, Guatemala, Sierre Leone and Timor-Leste, where sound and verifiable data was used effectively to answer a small question, then stretched to answer a broader question for which it was not suited. The researchers in each case, Ball argued, had confused ‘what was observable’ with ‘what was true,’ failing to acknowledge the existence of all the data they hadn’t collected or hadn’t thought to ask for.
The second half of Ball’s talk focused on ways to work around this, starting with some quick math. A short, 7th grade example: Two NGO projects in a country report widely differing figures for killings over the same period, call then result-set A and result-set B. They have some overlap in the list of names, call that subset M. What’s a rough estimate for the total number of killings, N? [Solution at the bottom of the post.]
More on Ball, and the solution, in the post.
Big news out of the Subcontinent this week: India and Pakistan are resuming peace talks after almost two years’ stalemate. The talks, which Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is calling the ‘comprehensive dialogue,’ will cover political, economic and security issues and will be structured not only around meetings between the two countries’ heads of state and foreign ministries, but also the ministries overseeing commerce, culture and natural resources. This structure will prevent, significantly, progress on any one area from being held hostage by stagnation on another.
Will these talks bear fruit? I’m skeptical, though not for the usual reasons. Read why here.
An update on U.S. policy re: Egypt over at Foreign Exchange:
And today, I saw and heard a very simple explanation: there is, after the violence of last Wednesday and Thursday, a commitment to organic Egyptian democracy in some top quarters (notably the White House), and a commitment to a rapid technocratic transition in others (notably the Pentagon), and no capacity or mechanism to efficiently share information, forge a consensus across departments, and coordinate a message. The State Department, where I’m writing this, has the unfortunate task of representing that to the world.
It’s a common critique of this Administration—indecision combined with multiple centers of power—but it happens to be true. If there isn’t an official U.S. statement tonight, it’s because there isn’t an official U.S. position right now. In part, that is a reaction to a speech from Mubarak that came—according to both intelligence and diplomatic sources—as a surprise to the U.S. But it is not clear, based on the messages today and conversations with officials while I waited for the briefing-that-never-came, that there was a coordinated U.S. position before the speech either.
Read it all here.
Tim Armstrong’s game to make AOL a content company continues today with his $315 million acquisition of the Huffington Post. Deal details are here, but the key points are: the new Huffington Post Media Group will include HuffPo as well as AOL’s content sites, and Arianna Huffington will be its editor-in-chief.
I’ve been reasonably patient and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving about the new AOL, but this strikes me as a terrible idea. First, there’s the gap between how the two companies see ‘content.’ For all the heat it takes on the grounds that it doesn’t pay its writers (and that heat is deserved), the HuffPo is very much a place that believes there’s value to a publisher in originalreporting. The front page may still read like the liberal answer to Drudge that its founders had in mind, but of late, the site has made major expansions into more serious coverage, and I increasingly run into HuffPo reporters who are doing gumshoe work. It is much more than an aggregator with great SEO managers, though it is that too.
AOL when Tim Armstrong first took it over promised to be that, hiring a number of high-profile journalists from collapsing newspapers to work on a number of smart blogs, and even recruiting stringers as foreign correspondents. But in the last few months, the strategy has shifted. This presentation of AOL’s new metrics for success is pessimistic and unimaginative, a vision of digital media seems stuck in the noisy, SEO-obsessed world of five years ago. It’s certainly not a vision that’s compatible with the kind of place that HuffPo has grown up to be, nor with some of the more interesting elements of AOL’s current content stable. No surprise, then, that those elements are the first to be thrown overboard.
Second, the new ‘AOL way’ is all about mass appeal, and, as everyone knows, the Huffington Post is partisan project. I am not sure what is harder to imagine: that all of AOL’s platforms could conform to Ariana Huffington’s worldview, or that the Huffington Post could suddenly shift center, in the way that Armstrong and Huffington promised when talking about the deal to AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher.
Actually, the whole Swisher interview is worth watching, because it highlights these two culture clashes–on politics and on reporting–that make me skeptical of the deal: listening to Ariana and then Armstrong, it seems as though they are talking about separate mergers. AOL. has been down the dangerous route of a merger with a very different culture before, and it had disastrous consequences. It’s a shame it seems to be making the same mistake twice.