Neil Lewis of the New York Times

The much-promised peer-reviewed research post is going to slip by another day, becuase I had forgotten about a talk by Neil Lewis last night on campus. Lewis is an alumnus of Union, and a writer for the Times best known for writing about the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he was speaking as part of the Alumni Writers Series.

He had prepared remarks, but his speech still had a very off-the-cuff feel, and he tried to get through the prepared stuff quickly to get to a more open Q&A period. He talked about Guantanamo here four years ago, and joked that he was going to re-use that speech, but realized that he had changed his opinion in some important ways.

Four years ago, he said, he regarded Guantanamo and other civil liberties outrages as an example of rapid over-reach by the executive branch, that was starting to be corrected by the judicial branch, through a series of court decisions that consistently went against the Bush administration. He still thinks that's true, but is less optimistic than four years ago, because, as he noted, not one person has been set free as a direct result of court action. He attributes this to a certain judicial timidity-- judges are hesitant to issue direct orders to people who might not follow them.

It was a fairly interesting talk, on the whole, but I was surprised and somewhat disappointed by the amount of deference he gave to bad arguments.

In talking about Guantanamo, he said several times that he's interested to see what the Democratic candidates plan to do about it, because he said it's a real problem what to do with these people. There doesn't seem to be much of an issue to me-- either you declare them prisoners of war, subject to the Geneva Conventions, and treat them accordingly, or you bring them to the United States and give them criminal trials with the full array of legal protections. He wasn't willing to say that, either because of some misguided idea about journalistic objectivity, or because he's bought into the bad arguments of the Bush Administration that these people are Telepathic Terrorist Ninjas who are too dangerous to be allowed to even talk to a lawyer, let alone be given a fair trial.

That was frustrating to hear, and sort of typical of my frustration with the talk. Lews was an amiable guy, and chatted interestingly with a number of students and faculty after the talk, but never really expressed a definite opinion about much of anything. The only really definitive statement he made was that he's really strongly opposed to news with an ideological slant, in the mode of Fox News or British tabloids.

As a blogger in attendance at a talk by a media figure, I was contractually obliged to ask the "New Media" question, namely "Do you think that blogs, YouTube, etc. are changing the journalism business for the better, for the worse, or just making things noisier?" His answer was about what you would expect: Blogs and the Web generally are killing the newspaper business, because nobody has figured out how to make serious money with them. They also don't do much if any reporting, and just re-package and interpret stories from the "old media." On the positive side, though, they make it much harder for public figures to get away with anything. They're changing the business, he said, and taking us somewhere new, but nobody knows where we're going.

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Blogs and the Web generally are killing the newspaper business, because nobody has figured out how to make serious money with them. They also don't do much if any reporting, and just re-package and interpret stories from the "old media."

Mr. Lewis doth protest too much. Blogs and the web may be hastening the decline of newspapers, but newspapers have been in decline for decades, and much of that decline was self-inflicted.

To take one example: comics. The comic strip was one of the few things that newspapers could do that TV could not do. Yet TPTB at newspapers decided it would be better for the newspapers to carry fewer, smaller comic strips. Perhaps it was in the short term, but in the long term it meant fewer reasons for people to buy a newspaper. In this case the syndicates share the blame by creating an oligopoly of strips, many of which are long past the point at which they are interesting. Meanwhile, along came the web, and comic strip writers could post online. Indeed, some are exclusively online (XKCD and Ph.D. come to mind). And they have found a way to make it pay, namely by selling their own merchandise.

The op-ed page is the other place where newspapers have shot themselves in the foot. The position of op-ed pundit is nice work if you can get it: substantial pay for pontificating about something you know nothing about. The trouble is, now there are lots of bloggers who actually do know something about the subject under discussion. Why should I pay to read the bloviations of a Tom Friedman (for whom Atrios named the term "Friedman Unit" based on Friedman's endless wrong predictions that things would get better in Iraq in the next six months or so) when I can go over to Eschaton and read somebody with a much better track record on Iraq? Or Hugh Hewitt claiming that we have nothing to worry about in terms of government surveillance when I can read Glenn Greenwald, an actual lawyer who takes the trouble to read what the proposed or existing laws actually say? Atrios and Greenwald have the advantage that they can back up what they say. Paul Krugman is the only newspaper pundit who comes anywhere close; if newspapers survive their op-ed pages will have more content from people like Krugman and less from the likes of Friedman and Hewitt.

Look in the mirror, newspaper man. Blogs and Web publications are filling a need that your newspaper should be filling, but isn't.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 Apr 2008 #permalink

"Freedom" spat the policeman, and played baseball with his truncheon. If Washington fears honest citizens arming themselves at their own expense, it should. An armed society is a polite society. The United States does not need Homeland Severity, it needs every citizen to exercise the civic virtues of citizenship. In 2008 that would be a vigorously hemodynamic 30 days, then reestablishment of the Bill of Rights, national border control, and contained central government.

There is no free beer at the bottom of the hole.

Did he say why he thought that the folks in G'itmo were a problem? One issue that I have heard of is, what do you do with people whose own countries will not take them back? I have no idea how serious a problem this actually is, but I have heard it floated.

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 09 Apr 2008 #permalink