Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Chuck Todd and Torture

Last week, Glenn Greenwald took apart Chuck Todd for his stance on torture investigations. Todd contacted Greenwald, and they had a half-hour conversation. It's worth checking out if you haven't already.

I give credit to Todd for showing up, and being mostly honest about his views (sometimes he needs to be pressed or makes pretty unconvincing explanations). However, he is also shockingly uninformed on the timeline and the major issues of this story. It's especially troubling because Todd is the Political Director for NBC News. Todd's seeming ignorance of major reports and facts is bad enough, but it's his general attitude opposing investigations and accountability that remains the most disconcerting.

Here's three reactions. First up, Digby:

Todd is a perfect example of a village reporter. He sees the world entirely through the lens of beltway conventional wisdom and obviously hasn't taken even five minutes to consider whether or not it's right, much less what the implications of blindly following its edicts might be. From this interview, I'm not sure he would even know how to do it. He's so ill-informed, even about basic facts about the US Attorney firings, that I don't think he has the tools…

I would just write him off as another fluffy spokesmodel except he's got a real job as political director at NBC news. As shocking as it seems, he's really quite powerful. His shallow understanding of the issues at stake --- the reduction of absolutely everything, (even torture and murder) to the insider political parlor game are the most important requirement for advancement in the beltway press and he has that function totally mastered.

After quoting Todd's key claims, Guardian of the Timeline Emptywheel observes:

That is, we can't hold Dick Cheney accountable for his crimes because the media--including Todd himself--is incapable of reporting the story as anything but a partisan story (in spite of the fact that--Glenn points out--there is bipartisan support for a torture prosecution), which guarantees that any investigation would turn into a show trial.

But it's even stupider than that. Todd says we shouldn't investigate the past administration becaues if we do the rest of the world might think we're a banana republic (as if decorum and not rule of law is the example the US wants to set for the rest of the world). For Todd, it's enough that we punish Administrations through the ballot box--but of course, we didn't punish Bush in 2004 after he started an illegal war, and by the time 2008 rolled around, Bush was term-limited and Cheney was not on the ballot, so we have not, in fact, punished the criminals at the ballot box.

In addition, Todd repeatedly says this is an ideological question, because it is not black and white whether Cheney and his torturers broke the law, in spite of:

• The psychologist/interrogator/contractor quoted in the OLC opinion admitting he exceeded John Yoo's guidelines
• The OLC memo's descrption of CIA HQ ordering up another round of waterboarding for Abu Zubayah when that violated the OLC memo's clear prohibition on waterboarding when the detainee was compliant
• The near-daily White House authorization of torture before John Yoo crafted a memo saying it was legal

These guys broke even the perversion of law they themselves instituted, so there's no question of ideology. To say nothing of the fact that St. Reagan's DOJ found waterboarding to be illegal and Republicans like Phillip Zelikow are among those demanding an investigation.

Which is Chuck Todd, noted journalist's, real problem: he's not aware of the facts. At a time when (as Glenn points out) Nora Dannehy continues to investigate the US Attorney firings, Chuck Todd declares that firing those US Attorneys was "perfectly legal." He apparently doesn't know--or won't report--the many pieces of evidence that show the Bushies violated the law, and so can conclude that any investigation would be "cable catnip," and so can claim that because the media won't do its homework we can't ask DOJ to investigate either.

In other words, we can't hold Dick Cheney accountable for his crimes because the beltway media can't help themselves but turn any investigation of crimes into a political trial.

Finally, here's Hilzoy:

First, the idea that we should not prosecute government officials who break the law whenever it would cause some sort of political fight amounts to the view that we should never prosecute government officials who break the law at all. And this idea is incredibly dangerous. We are supposed to have a government that is bound by law. If no member of the government is ever prosecuted when there's evidence that s/he broke the law, then the only reason why government officials would obey the law is their own conscience and sense of duty. Sometimes that's sufficient, but we'd be fools to rely on it.

Second, the idea that we should not prosecute politicians who break the law is just one more example of the idea that people with power should be able to live by different rules. When someone borrows an ordinary person's car and, unbeknownst to her, uses it to sell drugs, sending her to jail is "being tough on crime"; when a government official abuses his office, even hinting at prosecution is just "cable catnip" and a sign that you're a member of "the hard left".

This idea is odious, and it's antithetical to everything this country is supposed to stand for. People with power and privilege have a lot of advantages already. In particular, they will probably always do better in the legal system than the rest of us, since they can afford to hire very good lawyers. For that very reason, we should resist with all our might the idea that they should be given even more privileges.

Third: the reason why Chuck Todd seems to think that it would be "dangerous" to prosecute government officials when there is evidence that they have broken the law is that it might turn into what he calls "a political trial", and might even become "political footballs". I do not believe that this is a good reason not to investigate crimes. (Lots of trials become "political footballs": the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King, for instance, or Marion Barry's trial for crack cocaine. Does anyone think that we should simply have given those officers or Marion Barry a pass?) But politicized trials do do damage, and so it's worth asking: how might we minimize the chances that some trial might be unduly politicized?

The best answer I can think of is: the media might really try to do a good job of explaining the issues. When someone tried to say something misleading, they could call that person out. When prosecution of a government official was unwarranted, they could make that clear. And when there really was a plausible case that a government official had committed a crime, they could make that clear as well.

Which is to say: if Chuck Todd were really worried about trials being politicized, he would be in a wonderful position to prevent that from happening.

But I don't see much evidence that he is interested in that. In the podcast with Glenn, Chuck Todd makes (by my count) plain errors on five important factual questions. He is wrong about the kind of prosecutor under consideration, he is wrong to think that what Holder is proposing to investigate is interrogations that conform to Yoo's legal opinions, he is wrong about the duties of Justice Department lawyers, he was wrong about the legal status of firing the US Attorneys, and he was wrong about the state of American public opinion. And those are just the plain, obvious errors: I'm not counting things like his claim that prosecutions would harm our image abroad, or that there's a serious debate about whether Yoo's memos were defensible.

That's a lot of factual mistakes for one short podcast -- enough to make me think that Chuck Todd is not as concerned as he ought to be about getting it right. If he were, and if he could bring some of his colleagues along, we might not have to worry nearly as much about politicization.

Todd's ridiculous claim that prosecutions would harm our image abroad, and his suggestion that anyone seriously thinks Yoo's memos were sound legal opinions written in good faith, were actually the two assertions I found the most astounding. Accountability would be hailed overseas – Todd would be hard-pressed to find a foreign editorial arguing against it. Meanwhile, the memos were shoddy, cover-your-ass measures written after torture had started, that ignored existing law, and which were not even followed – even the supposedly "legal" torture guidelines the memos set were violated. At the very least, surely a full investigation is warranted, as is required by U.S. law where there are credible allegations of torture.

Chuck Todd isn't a dumb guy. However, he's more a trend man and a political commenter than an investigative reporter. I continue to think that the Beltway gang probably make the most sense when viewed in anthropological/ sociological terms. In his discussion with Greenwald, Todd reflects the Beltway consensus – a set of general attitudes opposing disclosure and accountability, along with an ignorance of key facts. Todd isn't informed because there is no social expectation that he be informed. (The same dynamic holds true for most policy matters.) If a pundit works from the conclusion backwards, that nothing should be done, ignoring facts and substance is hardly surprising - even if it is appalling.

If Attorney General Eric Holder or Congress initiated an investigation, the scope of acceptable opinions among the chattering class might eventually broaden. A full investigation needs to happen. Meanwhile, in order to reform the corporate media, somehow it needs to become the social norm and commercially appealing for talking heads to be well-informed on substance and committed to accountability journalism.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Chuck Todd isn't a dumb guy. However, he's more a trend man and a political commenter than an investigative reporter.

"More a trend man"???? Dude, my motherfucking housecat is more of an investigative reporter than him. Todd is a creepy sleazy leering sycophant, whose only interest is in coming across as a savvy insider and sucking up to power. The motherfucker is sickening.

Ubermilf said...

I don't know that this guy is "uninformed" or just a propagandist.

I don't know what makes me angrier -- the manipulation and lying of the right wing media, or the segment of the American populace that unquestioningly accepts them.

I am sad now.

Batocchio said...

Comrade PhysioProf, your cat might be an improvement. I've railed against these bastards more times than I can count.

NPR has reported key information about the torture programs, only to feign uncertainty in later segments about the same issues. I think theirs is mostly a failure of courage. I think Todd genuinely doesn't know. It's shameful and appalling, and absolutely he cares about his image. I'm just wondering if there's any way to exploit that or punish that to get better coverage, since Todd is typical in his ignorance, and better than some of his ilk in that he actually talked to Greenwald. He probably did so mostly because of his image - so calling out these twits can work.

Scottie said...

The part that really gets to me is this mentality that America's reputation would be sullied if prosecutions were to take place. That is totally nonsensical.

I believe that the rest of the world is watching and waiting for America to prosecute those bastards to show us all that they can pull themselves out of the shitstorm that they created for themselves.

Batocchio said...

Scottie, from your lips to Todd's ears.

Comrade Kevin said...

I see him as utterly unqualified for his present position and at times afraid of it. It was fine when he was working out precise delegate math during the Democratic primary, but after they moved David Gregory to Meet the Press, I have to say that inserting Chuck Todd was a stupid move on NBC's part.

rapier said...

Mr. Todd makes at least 6 figures a year. His predecessor made $6million. That money has nothing to do with reporting. Nobody makes that kind of money to report.

Entertainers make that kind of money because they give a return on investment. Arguably Russert did generate some positive return but Todd doesn't.

Todd is a company man. If you make a salary then the only way to get real wealth and real success is to be part of a large corporation. The only way to rise in a corporation is to be fully, a company man. I'm sure he believes everything he expressed in these matters is correct and an independent judgment. Only a man who has internalized the company line is a candidate for the top however.

He probably does respect Glenn's mind, and has a certain disdain for Glenn's net worth.