Assume the Position

Friday, August 16, 2002
Why isn't this just a bad joke?
A visiting Somali Transitional Government official yesterday called for the deployment of international peace-keeping forces to disarm warlords, warring groups and factions to help peace return to the 'Horn of Africa'.

Yousuf Hassan Ibrahim, Foreign Minister in the Transitional National Government of Somalia, said the key and pressing issue for peace in the country is to disarm all the warring factions and groups, "which can only be achieved with strong involvement and support of international peace-keeping forces."

The minister, who is on a tour of the region to brief Arab leaders about the situation in Somalia, said: "We need an urgent intervention from the international community to stop the bloodshed and disarm warring factions in order to help peace return to Somalia."

Of course, if the warlords refuse to peacefully disarm and the peacekeepers engage in military tactics, somebody will try to make sure the peacekeepers are charged with war crimes for any mistakes.
Unlike previous accounts of the Somalia debacle, Peterson does not dwell on the October 1993 firefight that killed 18 American Rangers and 312 Somali. Instead he focuses on the events that led up to the battle, most notably a raid three months earlier by U.S. helicopters on a meeting of clan elders in the capital, Mogadishu. In that attack, part of the manhunt for warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, anti-tank missiles killed between 20 (official U.N. estimate) and 54 (Red Cross sources) Somali, turning the tide against the U.N. operation for good. Peterson experienced the shift in Somali public opinion firsthand. Arriving minutes after the U.S. troops left the scene that morning, he recalls: "The mob surrounded me ... my mind raced uncontrollably knowing instinctively there would be no running away." Slashed across the back of the head, he tore himself free only after blurting out, "I'm British!" (He is not.) Four other journalists who then arrived were beaten to death. Peterson contends that the U.S.-led, U.N.-ordered, attack qualifies as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions because it targeted civilians without offering the prospect of concrete and direct military advantage.
I guess if the UN sends peacekeepers anytime soon, they'd best be French, since they're the ones with the seven year immunity from any ICC war crimes investigation or prosecution.

Credit where credit is due? Bill Quick bemoans the lack of credit given to Scott Koenig for breaking the McKinney Arab-American donors story. In the piece he references James Taranto's Best of the Web poke at the Washington Post for comming to the issue late and not mentioning Scott. My initial comment was:
I went back and looked through some of stuff I collected on the Operation TIPS frenzy--few of the editorials or articles credit the Washington Post unsigned editorial that started it all. While there may be a difference if there is a byline attached to the story, I kind of doubt it.

I think the tendency for proper crediting has to do with the level of investigation behind the stories, which was relatively small in both these cases. Any reporter could easily duplicate the "investigation" and then write something without necessarily feeling a need to source where they got the idea for doing the story:

1. Read WP editorial. Visit TIPS website. Lift quote from ACLU press release. Write editorial.

2. Read Scott's blog or just hear about the donations. Visit opensecrets (or better, the FEC website), run the calculations, compare names to terrorist supporter lists, write story.

And, as the stories grew, more information became available from other parties (advocacy group press releases, campaign staff, etc.), so later writers probably don't feel any need to say "first questioned by the Washington Post" or "first reported by Scott Koenig."

Bill replies by asking, "Lynxx, how do we explain that the WSJ, which probably knows more about journo etiquette than either of us, is making an issue about the lack of credit Scott is getting?" and I responded:
It's because they can. It's a "Nayh! Nayh!" on Best of the Web, not exactly the "WSJ making an issue" out of it, unless you want to also say the WSJ is making an issue about the Washington Post being slow to cover the story in first place since the lede for that blurb is, "Better Late Than Never."

It's one paper taking a pot-shot at another, but it may well be pot-kettle-black in that there are probably WSJ articles that don't reference or credit somebody who first brought an item to somebody else's attention and the WSJ interest is at third or fourth hand. (Somebody with Nexis access could probably find several examples.)

Best of the Web is in tune with what's on the web including blogs. Because the "lack of credit for Scott" was making its rounds, Taranto picked it up. But if you read Edsall's Post piece (12 Aug web posting) you can tell he started with the Atlanta Journal Constitution's reporting, which doesn't mention Scott. Aug 13th is where Scott is first mentioned by major media and that is Taranto's blurb dinging the Post for not mentioning Scott, but in the same blurb he doesn't ding the AJC.

I then added another comment pointing out that Taranto, of the WSJ, might be considered to have failed to give me credit, though I don't think that is the case. Instead of cluttering Bill's comments, I'll address that instance more fully here.

James Taranto has a August 14th editorial about the Operation TIPS hysteria, "The New Red Scare".

It began in mid-July when one Ritt Goldstein--a self-described "former leader in the movement for U.S. law enforcement accountability" who "has lived in Sweden since 1997, seeking political asylum there"--penned an essay for an Australian newspaper in which he warned that under TIPS "the U.S. will have a higher percentage of citizen informants than the former East Germany through the infamous Stasi secret police." Brian Doherty of the libertarian Reason magazine picked up the theme: "The East Germans had a more stylish and nakedly sinister name for the same idea: the formerly feared, and apparently now fondly missed, Stasi."

The liberal Boston Globe editorialized that Attorney General John Ashcroft and "his fellow travelers" should "consult some of the citizens in the former East Germany who discovered, when looking into their Stasi files, that under the former regime they had been spied upon for years by a husband or wife." The paper added that TIPS "would give Stalin and the KGB a delayed triumph in the Cold War." (Who knew the Boston Globe was so fervidly anticommunist?) And Rep. Dick Armey, the House Republican leader, struck TIPS from the homeland-security bill, saying he objected to "citizens spying on one another."

My July 21st, "Spontaneous Combustion - A Chronology of the Operation TIPS Paranoia Outbreak," shows the storm began with the Washington Post editorial (which Taranto doesn't credit), then Ritt Goldstein, then points to four of my prior posts which include digs on the Boston Globe editorial (with a credit to Best of the Web), Tapped, my first mentions of the WP and Goldstein articles, and a takedown of the Robert Levy piece on NRO. Doherty's Reason piece is in my files but I never mentioned it on the blog. Throughout all of my mid to late July remarks on the TIPS coverage I stressed the hysterical nature of the reporting and at one point even said that the writers "all went racing off with the worst case scenario they could dream up (or channel from Ritt Goldstein)" and had previously mentioned how I found the entire farce to be an insult to Americans.

More than three weeks before Taranto's editorial I described the effect of Goldstein's piece as "Well, 'bombshell' isn't the right word, a bombshell is normally some new, startling revelation -- a 'smoking gun' -- this was more like dynamiting an outhouse . . .because the scattered scat from the exploding privy impacted fans everywhere over the next few days and really started to reek of paranoia." Then James Taranto comes along with his editorial, chronicling the hysterical coverage and essentially saying we're Americans not East Germans, get over it.

Now, I'm not claiming Taranto's editorial should have credited me, even though Bill Quick said I "owned this story" in blogdom and Taranto does the Best of the Web. He likely developed the chronology of hysterical editorials in the center of his piece independently—he actually nailed Ritt Goldstein's Sydney Morning Herald piece two days before I did, though I just now discovered his July 15th dismissal of Goldstein.

I didn't credit him for a takedown of Ritt 2 days before mine that I didn't know about, and he didn't credit me with a takedown of the whole TIPS hysteria issue 3 weeks before his that he probably didn't know about. Reporters comming to the McKinney story from a source that didn't mention Scott probably won't mention him either, and may, in fact, not know that he broke the story—just like Taranto's WSJ editorial doesn't credit the Washington Post for starting the Operation TIPS frenzy. (Of course, the Post isn't crediting itself, either.)

UPDATE: Scott's scoop on the clump of Sep 11 donations to McKinney was posted on August 01, 2002 01:44 PM , presumably Pacific time since Scott has a power failure post that indicates he's on the West coast. Edsall had a Washington Post article Muslims Aid Embattled House Member in the print edition on August 2nd, but it was on the web August 1st (unless the WP pre-dates its URLs).

Members of the Muslim American community are providing extensive support for Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), defending the five-term incumbent against a challenge financed in part by Jewish leaders critical of her stand on Israel.

At least three-quarters of the $234,299 that McKinney has raised from individuals this year is from donors with Muslim or Arab American surnames, the great majority of whom live outside her district.

Meanwhile her Democratic challenger, former state judge Denise Majette, has begun raising large sums from Jewish donors alarmed by McKinney's comments on Middle East matters.

Edsall's story doesn't mention the clump of Sep 11th donations and it contains numerous quotes from both campaigns and other sources. Edsall couldn't have seen Scott's story before 4:44 PM Washington/Georgia (Eastern) time, yet he manages to have quotes from "Bill Banks, McKinney's campaign manager" and "Bob Doyle, who is coordinating Majette's fundraising" for his article. Could he have seen Scott's post that late in the afternoon and still put together such a comprehensive article? Unlikely. Had he seen Scott's post, wouldn't he have mentioned the Sep 11th clump of donations? Probably. So, if he was working this story on or before August 1st, which seems quite likely, then there is no reason for him to credit Scott in the Aug 12th article which is a follow-up to his own story.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002
Humiliation redux. Airman Vanessa Dobos becomes the first woman door gunner in the USAF. (found via corsair via InstaPundit)

Transition plans. There's been plenty of commentary over the Time's Aug 12th issue cover story (web posted Aug 4) about the outgoing Clinton administration, that "They Had A Plan" for taking out al-Qaeda and handed it over to the Bush administration during the January 2001 transition. What I haven't seen mentioned, or missed if someone did mention it, is that one of the last times an exiting administration turned over a plan to take care of a thorn in America's side to an incoming administration from the other party was when Ike gave JFK the keys to the White House. That plan is now known to most people as the Bay of Pigs. Oops.

While looking to see if anyone else had made that observation in the light of Time's "revelation," I did run across one thing that's kind of humorous in retrospect—a November 27, 2001 press briefing given by Jake Siewert. The election was still in dispute and there were numerous questions from the press about transition procedures. Questioners are unidentified in the transcript, so I don't know who asked this one:

Q Let me ask you a question on national security. Are there two levels of briefings for a presidential candidate and another one for a presidential-elect? In other words, do you get more sensitive information if you're the President-elect? Here's an example. In 1960, after Kennedy got elected, Eisenhower saw that he was briefed on the upcoming Bay of Pigs operation. There has been talk that this administration is preparing some kind of retaliatory strike against Osama bin Laden or unnamed others. Would George Bush, if he were the President-elect, get that kind of high-level --

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I'm certainly not going to comment on that kind of specific hypothetical. I can tell you that the briefings they're receiving are high level. I'll check on the exact nature of them. But Sandy Berger has also been in touch with their national security team and given them briefings when sensitive issues came up.

Q Do they go to a higher level, though, if the White House --

MR. SIEWERT: I'll check. I don't know.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002
Speaking of credibility, names, and titles, thank's to Bill Quick's open comments display I saw this (1), which made me actually check and find this (2), which means I have to update this (3). In short, Michael Newdow apparently is a "physician with a law degree" (1&2), so calling him Dr. Newdow seems quite appropriate regardless of any other slightly dubious credentials (3).

What's in a name? Friday, August 9th, Matt Welch and Matthew Yglesias in the comments to Matt's post about Tim Blair's "I'm Never Off the Record" remark:
Welch - "As a reader, I rarely trust anonymous sources, especially when they are talking smack. I also rarely trust those p.o.v.-indicating phrases like 'observers said,' etc. They are the most convincing to me when A) the sources job-description *and* reason for being cowardly are defined as much as possible, B) the news organization is generally trustworthy (though the number that can be described that seems to shrink annually), and C) it isn't a smearing quote whose motivations seem transparently suspect.

"Still, I should emphasize that I've never covered defense, nor ongoing FBI investigations, nor many of the types of stories that make you depend on anony-sources. Good journalism's tough.

"*Blogs* that are anonymous, though, I have almost zero time for ... unless they're really funny."

Yglesias - "Interesting point about the anonybloggers. It seems like when you're doing opinion writing it's really vital that you at least be willing to stand up for your own opinions. I might feel better about some anonymous blogging if the bloggers in question provided some kind of identifying information and reasons for anonymity as per what you suggest for sources."

Then over the weekend, Steven den Beste lays into Demosthenes, who replies here. (Den Beste's post and this Glenn Reynolds' InstaPost have many links to others's comments.) Much of this exchange revolves around Steven's perception of hubris in Demosthenes choice of pseudonym—the rigged "debate" between Demosthenes and Locke influencing Earth's politics in Orson Scott Card's "Ender" series. Not surprisingly, Demosthenes denies that he sees himself as some teen-genius subtly pulling the strings to control the world's destiny. In all, your basic tempest in a teacup with a side order of self-linking etiquette and trip to the Catholic church.

But the core argument is about credibility, especially for those advocating positions. Den Beste says the pseudos don't have it, we're essentially all Slashdot-like anonymous cowards. Aside from many bloggers' well articulated concerns about workplace repercussions and the potential trouble from dangerous cranks, two sometimes overlooked points are raised.

One. Jane Galt (the post-semi-pseudonymous Megan McArdle) points out the ying-yang of biographical information, a possibly false authority adding to credibility versus an instinctive stereotyped ad hominem that may detract from it:

The fact that I have an MBA from Chicago does not make me an expert on anything except the muffins in the business school cafeteria, but it does indicate that I have at least a basic familiarity with financial transactions, accounting, and the principles of economics. On the other hand, to many on the left it means that I have been indoctrinated with an ultra-right-wing free market ideology espoused by the kind of people who, when the revolution comes, will be the first ones with their backs against the wall. So while I gain credibility with some, I lose it with others, and undoubtedly pick up a couple of detractors who are actively planning the day when I am executed for spreading Imperialist Dogma or some such.
Two. Den Beste mentions this one in passing, but I think Asparagirl nails it:
I think this is an example of the bigger issue here: it's not that anonymous or pseudonymous bloggers are untrustworthy sources of ideas, musings, jokes, political commentary, and other ephemera, it's that everyone on the Internet is an inherently untrustworthy source.

. . . [B]ecause if the rules of the Internet say it's possible that everyone you deal with online may be a creation or an alter ego rather than a true-to-life representation, then you really are forced to go strictly by what someone writes and use that as your input, because practically everyone is unverifiable to some degree.

. . . I mean, "Stephen Den Beste" might actually be a consortium of retired KGB operatives and Red Army grunts working out of a retirement home in the Moscow suburbs.

There are fundamental differences between those who carry some pre-existing reputation and credibility (or lack thereof), often from mainstream media, into the blogging community (call them pros) and the amateur or casual bloggers. The amateurs, named or pseudonymous, build a reputation in blogdom from scratch. Those who previously hung out (or still hang out) in some forum, maillist or newsgroup might have a reputation for credibility or insight, but probably only among the forum participants, so they're also starting close to zero on the credibility scale.

Deciding whether to blog in the open or under cover presents a standard risk/reward calculation. For the pros its a no-brainer, they've got their rep and blogging will only reinforce it. But for the amateur starting a blog, the possibilities for any real benefits (fame, fortune, whatever) beyond some personal satisfaction are so small that even minor chances for real trouble are perceived to greatly outweigh the potential for reward. Pseudonymous blogging provides a bit of protection from the various risks. A pseudonym can always be discarded later, but choosing to use a real name can't be revoked (at least for a particular blog or website).

Once having decided to use a psuedonym, however, there is another decision to be made. This is where I think the Den Beste view of psuedonyms may have an unintended consequence by tilting the choice toward dishonest psuedonyms instead of honest psuedonyms. I think psuedonyms that are obviously not real names (handles) are more honest than fake names (aliases).

I could just as easily have named this blog "That's a Croc" and sign my posts as Fred "Gator" Johnson. Readers comming across the blog with den Beste's outlook would wrongly think me someone demonstrating the "courage of convictions through an act of faith to earn the credibility to preach about those convictions to others." They aren't going to know whether the name "Fred 'Gator' Johnson" is my real name or is as fake as a three-dollar bill, but the benefit of the doubt will go toward it being real and most (if not all) will do no further investigation. "Lynxx Pherrett," however, is obviously a handle; the reader immediately knows I'm not posting under my real name—forewarned is forearmed, cavet emptor, and the rest.

Examples like Robert Musil and Charles Dodgson fall somewhere inbetween. The names are real, but are presumably being used as psuedonyms by those two bloggers. In these cases, however, how quickly the reader draws that conclusion depends upon the reader's prior knowledge of the existence and works of the chosen namesake. At best, such a conclusion can only be a presumption, because there remains the possibility that Robert or Charles are using their given names and the blog title references to the works of their better known namesakes is a subtle misdirection.

Aliases make a better shield than obvious handles. Unless "Gator" makes some questionable personal claims, no readers are likely to try to verify much about him. Between a common enough name and the possibility of an unlisted phone number, neither Google nor phone directories will be much help determining if Fred is real or not. If he pisses somebody off, they may go to extra efforts, but they will likely run across several real "Fred Johnsons" before they decide that "Fred 'Gator' Johnson" doesn't exist. (That may or may not cause some trouble for those individuals.) About the best the average person will be able to do is denounce Fred Johnson as an imposter and throw any credibility he had into doubt. A handle, at least, tells the curious not to waste their time with phone directories or yearbooks.

While any pseudonym provides a level of initial privacy, I don't think it provides much real security, since a determined advesary can probably pierce it. In that event, it becomes more of a screening mechanism. Hate mail, for example, mostly comes from harmless cranks who can safely be ignored. But anybody who goes to enough work to find out the real identity of their target should be taken a bit more seriously, since they've demonstrated both determination and capability.

Since I dabble at blogging without any real expectation of reward (it can't help me in any way at all, at least not in any ways I seriously consider as opposed to possibly fantasizing about) or any real plan for what the blog will evolve into, I might as well start from a posture that minimizes any potential risks even at the cost of some indeterminate loss of initial credibility. It's no greater loss than my penchant for joining these discussions a day late and a dollar short.

Monday, August 12, 2002
Steven Hatfill probably agrees with the ACLU about "vigilantism." But in his case the vigilante didn't need no stink'n Operation TIPS, and they weren't a truck driver, ship captain, letter carrier, or, heaven forbid, a meter reader poking around in his garbage can. No, this was essentially a one-person crusade by a PhD member of the Federation of American Scientists. This "snoop" didn't need a toll-free number, instead there were direct meetings with Senate committee staff and the FBI.

Of course, in the interest of fairness, to quote the "informant" who, when the FBI wasn't harassing Hatfill fast or often enough to suit them, harangued the FBI in the press, "I have never mentioned specifically any names . . . I have never said anything that only pointed to one given person. If anyone see parallels, that is their opinion." Me neither, so I guess I'm covered. I just wonder on which side of the potential lawsuits the ACLU will file their amicus curie briefs.

Aviation Leak and Space Mythology got into the Iraq war plans reporting with the August 5, David A. Fulghum piece, Iraq Strike Has Focus, But There's No Timetable. Nothing really new, but since their overall reputation leans more toward the "leak" and not the "myth" of their nickname:
The U.S. and Britain have in place elements of a plan--that could be executed with or without additional allies--to gut Iraq's key Republican Guard units with air attacks, freeze the production or release of chemical and biological weapons with new microwave weapons and keep the regular army confined to its garrisons, unharmed, through a combination of information and psychological warfare. . .

Original content copyright © 2002-2005 Lynxx Pherrett. All rights reserved.