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Mar 11 2014

White House Interference at CAP

With the recent resignation of an anchor and a reporter from Russia Today, there’s been a lot of talk about Russian government censorship of media. But Zaid Jilani, a former national security reporter for ThinkProgress, the blog of the ostensibly liberal Center for American Progress, notes that the Obama White House applied similar pressure there to tow their party line.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post to explain how working in Washington taught me we’re all a little bit like the good folks who work at RT America — struggling against editorial censors, doing our best to follow our conscience despite sometimes suffocating pressures from our publishers and sponsors.
When I started working at ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in 2009, I did so because it was an awesome platform to do good journalism. I knew that I disagreed with CAP on a number of issues, and that I wouldn’t be allowed to write things too harshly critical of President Obama — which half of senior CAP staff had worked for or wanted to work for — or the Democratic Party, or CAP’s corporate sponsors in the “Business Alliance.”
One of the controversial topics that was very constrained in our writing at ThinkProgress in 2009 was Afghanistan. CAP had decided not to protest Obama’s surge, so most our writing on the topic was simply neutral — we weren’t supposed to take a strong stand. Given that I had just moved up from Georgia, and the American South has a much higher proportion of its population in the Armed Forces, I felt particularly strong that we should oppose the continuation of the war. The people who ran CAP didn’t really agree.

Flash forward a couple years, and the Democratic Party’s lawmakers in Congress were in open revolt over the Afghanistan policy. Our writing at ThinkProgress had opened up a lot on the issue, and I was writing really critical stuff. I worked with our art and design team at CAP to put together a chart showing that Obama’s supposed “withdrawal” plan from Afghanistan would leave more troops in the country than when he began his presidency.

The post was one of the most successful things I had ever written to that point. It was featured by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and the Congressional Progressive Caucus used it in their briefings to criticize Obama’s plan. I felt great — like I was actually doing the right thing about Afghanistan for once at an institution that had remained quiet or supportive of Obama’s policy there, which in my view was accomplishing little but more bloodshed.
But then phone calls from the White House started pouring in, berating my bosses for being critical of Obama on this policy. Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes — speaking of a staffer who follows policy set by others for his career path — even made a post on the White House blog more or less attacking my chart by fudging the numbers and including both the Iraq and Afghan troop levels in a single chart to make it seem as if the surge never happened (the marvels of things you can do in Excel!).

Soon afterwards all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama. It confused me a lot because on the one hand, CAP was advertising to donors that it opposed the Afghan war — in our “Progressive Party,” the annual fundraising party we do with both Big Name Progressive Donors and corporate lobbyists (in the same room!) we even advertised that we wanted to end the war in Afghanistan.

But what that meeting with CAP senior staff showed me was that they viewed being closer to Obama and aligning with his policy as more important than demonstrating progressive principle, if that meant breaking with Obama. Essentially, they were doing the same thing to us RT America is telling its American producers to do now — align with your boss, who is the president of the country.

I left CAP not too long after that, partly for reasons of other censorship dealing with both corporate sponsors and that institution’s fealty to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I wanted to work at a more independent outlet, but every place I’ve worked for since has had its own editorial constraints and conflicts of interest.

Which brings me to why we’re all a little like RT America. The people who work at ThinkProgress today continue to do awesome, independent reporting. But they have a lot of constraints on them, and I’m sure they wish they didn’t. But it’s an unfortunate reality in many of the journalistic environments we exist today. We can’t criticize certain people, or dig into certain stories, or follow our noses on the trail of corruption if it means upsetting our publishers, sponsors, and donors.

Having worked as a journalist and editor, this certainly doesn’t surprise me. At the American Independent News Network, I never felt any pressure over the issue of supporting a particular party or particular politicians. We were an unabashedly progressive news site, but we took on Democrats as well as Republicans. But we were a non-profit, so we had to raise funds and sometimes that meant focusing on particular issues more than others because that would make it more likely that we would get funding from this or that foundation.

In the major media, or non-profit media that is closely allied with political figures and powerful organizations and think tanks, there is far more pressure and many more constraints. Everyone wants access and that can quickly be cut off by a White House that is unhappy with your reporting.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    eric

    I am not sure this is a journalistic issue as much as it is a human issue. Pretty much every profession has to find a way to deal with the golden rule (‘he who has the gold, makes the rules’). Scientists must propose projects for which grants are offered. Businessfolk must tune their products to consumers, even if they think there is a better but less popular solution. Engineers, heck even artists and entertainers probably have to deal with this.

    On the plus side, every profession probably offers the same ‘solution’ too – the more respected you become, the less these rules constrain you. But for us regular schmucks, I have to say that the journalistic issue does not sound particularly different from some of the stuff I deal with in my non-journalistic job.

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    Ahem! … to toe their party line.

    As I understand it, in the good ol’ days boxing matches were held outdoors, on a sandy “ring.” The referee would scratch a line in the dirt across the middle, beyond which the fighters were not allowed to step until the ref gave the signal.

    Each boxer was expected to show their spirit with aggressive body language, but they suffered a penalty if they went past that line. Those who followed the rules (incidentally, performing barefoot) meant that they would only go up to, and therefore “toe”, that also proverbial line in the sand.

    I dunno if that’s strictly true, but it makes a good story to help remember that nobody was actually obediently pulling some damn line around.

  3. 3
    colnago80

    I left CAP not too long after that, partly for reasons of other censorship dealing with both corporate sponsors and that institution’s fealty to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

    Shorter Jilani: I wanted to throw Israel under the bus and the folks at CAP disagreed. Jilani used the term Israel firster in several tweets while working for CAP. This type of language is reminiscent of the Protocols of Zion.

    http://goo.gl/xzrk3L

  4. 4
    brucegee1962

    Ever since NBC revamped their newsite and made it unloadable, I’ve been looking around for a good, comprehensive news site to take its place. I’d like something that covers everything — world, tech, entertainment, politics — without too much heavy-handed censorship. Any recommendations?

  5. 5
    brucegee1962

    Seriously, colnago80? Criticism of Israel=Protocols of Zion?

    People should not be criticized for who they are, as with ethnicity or gender.

    But when people associate themselves with a particular belief, government, policy, or agenda, then they don’t get immunity from criticism for their publicly expressed beliefs.

    In other words, the current Israeli may be correct in its policies, or it may be wrong. But if you want to defend its policies, then explain while they’re defensible. Don’t just play the lazy anti-Semitism card.

  6. 6
    Set Kouwenhoven

    @colnago80 Well, I’d like to throw Israel under the bus as well, but that has nothing to do with the fact that it’s predominantly Jewish. It has everything to do with their insistence on pumping out crimes against humanity.

  7. 7
    colnago80

    Re Set Kouwenhoven @ #6

    Crimes against humanity? You know, maybe the Government of Israel should take a leaf out of the Assad pere and fils playbook when dealing with the Palestinians. Then Set would have something to really whine about. Here’s real crimes against humanity as claimed by Amnesty International, hardly a group of Zionist apologists.

    http://goo.gl/0Jx20O

    Re brucegee 1962 @ #5

    Excuse me, claiming that Jews are disloyal citizens of the US = Protocols of Zion. That’s what the term Israel firster means, when used by Jilani.

  8. 8
    Donnie

    I know….let’s NUKE Iran!!!!!!! Am I right SLC?

  9. 9
    colnago80

    Re Donnie @ #8

    Nah, I think maybe we can take out their nuclear facilities with conventional bombs with the nukes held in reserve to act as a deterrent against retaliation.

  10. 10
    Nick Gotts

    Excuse me – colnago80

    No, I won’t excuse a genocidal scumbag for justifying crimes against humanity because someone else has committed even worse crimes against humanity.

    claiming that Jews are disloyal citizens of the US = Protocols of Zion. That’s what the term Israel firster means, when used by Jilani.

    If he does say that American Jews in general are disloyal citizens of the USA, that is indeed antisemitism, but given your Pavlovian response to any criticism of Israeli policy or its supporters – as amply demonstrated in this thread – I’d require some actual evidence that that was his meaning before believing you.

  11. 11
    Pierce R. Butler

    All you fans of colnago80′s armchair heroics won’t want to miss the thread starting here!

  12. 12
    Pierce R. Butler

    brucegee1962 – I rely on BBC News, though with diminishing enthusiasm.

  13. 13
    brucegee1962

    When I hear “Israel first,” it makes me think of Republicans more than American Jews, since many Republicans seem ready to excuse Israel no matter what they end up doing. Perhaps there is context to the term that I was unaware of, though, not having read the Protocols.

  14. 14
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @ ^ brucegee : And a lot of people and commenters here are always quick to *demonise* Israel regardless of whatever it does too.

    Israel is one very small nation that has willingly surrendered hard fought land to its enemies in the hopes of getting peace through that swap – instead they got back rocket fire at their civilian in return.

    @12. Pierce R. Butler :

    brucegee1962 – I rely on BBC News, though with diminishing enthusiasm.

    Personally (Aussie) ABC news:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/

    and SBS especially for international are generally good although checking out a wide range of sources is always best. Also checking and researching for yourself including print as well as just online sources.

    @6. Set Kouwenhoven :

    @colnago80 Well, I’d like to throw Israel under the bus as well, but that has nothing to do with the fact that it’s predominantly Jewish. It has everything to do with their insistence on pumping out crimes against humanity.

    Setting aside for now the extreme dubiousness of the claim that Israel is committing “crimes against Humanity” instead of legally defending itself from terrorist and military forces attacking it; do you realise how ugly and wrong your statement is?

    Have you forgotten that there are plenty of people in Israel – 8 million – almost all of whoem have done wrong and are just trying to live their lives in peace?

    What have Israeli women and children ever done to deserve being “thrown under the bus” – which means what? Mass murdered? Having their nation obliterated and wiped off the map? have the Jews pushed into the sea in that favourite piece of Arab rhetoric? Tell me why do you think that’s not as bad or worse than what you and others here would accuse colnago80 of being?

  15. 15
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    D’oh!! That’s meant to read :

    Have you forgotten that there are plenty of people in Israel – 8 million – almost all of whoem have done NO wrong and are just trying to live their lives in peace?

    Naturally.

    There are millions of good Israeli people and the country has a diverse population many of whoem oppose what some others eg. their erstwhile government(s) does. They don’t deserve extermination or indeed attempts at their extermination and they don’t deserve the reflexive hate-on amd demonisation with a familiar reallyugly undercurrent that they get from some FTB commenters.

  16. 16
    Georgia Sam

    “Tow” the line? I think the term is “toe the line,” which according to Wikipedia means “either to conform to a rule or standard, or to stand poised at the starting line in a footrace.”

  17. 17
    Georgia Sam

    If it was a typo, never mind.

  18. 18
    stuartsmith

    It’s as I’ve always said. Capitalism is not really a system for getting things done, but a system for blocking things from being done unless they are in the interests of the elites. We live, voluntarily, under a system where the fact that there is a job that needs doing, people who are able to do it, and resources with which it could be done is not sufficient to actually get them to do it. First the people who are able to do it must go around begging for permission from people whose primary accomplishment in life is being born to the right parents. Then if they get permission, they must pay tribute to their masters in return for that permission, while the master is free to interfere with the project regardless of whether they actually understand it or not. No end, no matter how socially desirable, can be attempted unless an already rich person is allowed to skim off the top. It’s pretty insane, really.

  19. 19
    colnago80

    Re stuartsmith @ #18

    First the people who are able to do it must go around begging for permission from people whose primary accomplishment in life is being born to the right parents.

    Gee, was Larry Ellison born to the “right parents”. As I understand it he was adopted. Same for Steven Jobs. Although the parents of Bill Gates and Michael Dell were not paupers, they weren’t billionaires either.

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