Monday, December 22, 2014

The latest poor information on John Yoo

The latest poor information on John Yoo

 

The empire struck back today, as Inquirer editorial page editor Harold Jackson (that's our policy here at Attytood, to use people's actual names when we know who they are) gave what amount to a three-quarters-throated defense of giving U.S. torture architect  -- and (native) Philadelphian! -- John Yoo a monthly contract. This is my third post in the last seven days regarding Yoo -- I can't promise it will be my last because with blogging you can never say "never" -- but I hope Harold's column is a good point for winding this thing down.

Three things.

1. The substance: Yoo worked as a key lawyer in the Justice Department during George W. Bush's first term who not only sought to nullify the Geneva Convention for terrorism detainees but signed off on waterboarding and other forms of torture, and also argued for quasi-dictatorial powers for the president in an undeclared war on terror, which could include suspending the right of free press for a newspaper like the Inquirer. Nonetheless, the Inquirer last year handed Yoo, now a law professor, the keys to a sought-after piece of journalistic real estate as a monthly columnist on the op-ed page.

Jackson:

I had misgivings, but believed our readers would place the move in context with the paper's clearly expressed criticism in numerous editorials of the Bush administration's use of torture.

I was wrong. From the beginning, we received letters and e-mails criticizing the hiring of Yoo. The criticism increased after his torture memos became public.

At our urging, Yoo wrote a column explaining his reasoning in writing the memos. That piece allowed our readers to hear him out, and respond with their own thoughts about torture. It was exactly what you want to see newspaper opinion pages do - provide the catalyst for intelligent discourse.

Allowing Yoo to have his say has not changed our Editorial Board's opinion that torture can never be justified.

Well, I certainly agree with that, that torture can never be justified. In fact, torture is illegal under U.S. law, including a statute that was signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988. So why hand a paid, monthy column to this man that no one had ever heard of -- an obscure law professor now living and working 3,000 miles away -- until the world learned of his advocacy for torture? (As several people have noted in the last week, true conservatives should be embarrassed by this notion that torture advocacy qualifies you instantly now as "a leading conservative voice.") 

I hate to keep repeating myself, so I'll try to do this succinctly as I can. Torture isn't like mass transit funding or filling a Supreme Court vacancy. It is something that is both unlawful and immoral and falls into those categories of things -- like racial discrimination or any kind of violence (which torture is) -- that are clearly beneath the core standards of the community. A newspaper that make such an overt (and unforced, and unnecessary) hire as John Yoo is normalizing torture to its readers and the world, stating that waterboarding and other violent interrogation tactics are just another one of those "on one hand, on the other hand" kind of things. I find this torture normalization highly offensive, as do scores of other people who have written the Inquirer.

I am glad that he didn't mention free speech, because this is not a free speech issue. I support John Yoo's right of free speech. It's not about muzzling John Yoo from expressing his far-out-of-the-mainstream opinion in the many venues that are available to him, but whether a major American newspaper should give Yoo, his actions, and the notion of torture advocacy its implied endorsement by handing him a megaphone from its very small box of them.

One more thing: Harold Jackson, in a column purporting to a spirited defense of Yoo, concedes that he had "misgivings" last year about hiring him. Really? "Misgivings"? What about? He doesn't exactly say. But since then, we've not only learned more about Yoo's torture advocacy, but that Justice Department investigators have uncovered "sloppy legal analysis, misjudgments and possible political interference in the process," serious enough to refer Yoo (and a colleague) for state disbarment proceedings. Since the discussion of Yoo's Inquirer column heated up last week, his journalistic ethics have been called out, too. When you now have allegations of unethical conduct to advance a policy that, to quote Jackson, "can never be justified,' piled on top of his initial (highly valid) "misgivings," that seems all the more cause to yank Yoo's megaphone for the last 4-5 months of that contract.

2. The tone: I'm still trying to dope out the broadside that Jackson launched his column with:

But that happens when your information comes from those bloggers who never let the facts get in the way when they're trying to whip people into a frenzy to boost Web site hits.

It's a shame that one blogger who disseminated poor information is actually a full-time journalist for a sister publication in The Inquirer building.

To set the record straight, no one tried to hide Yoo's becoming a regular columnist. He had appeared in The Inquirer occasionally since 2005, and his commentaries became a monthly feature about eight months ago.

"Poor information"? That's a bizarre accusation considering that the primary source of information for my original blog post was...Harold Jackson. Thanks to my communication with Harold, I was able to report accurately that Yoo had been offered a contract in 2008 (He told me "late last year," although he later told the New York Times more specifically October). My piece also reported factually that a) there was no formal announcement of Yoo's column either by way of a press release or a standalone article, as had been the case with several other high-profile columnists and b) I, and others I spoke with who work at either the Daily News or Inquirer, were not aware that Yoo was a regular monthly columnist. I didn't make any kind of broader accusation along those lines -- frankly that whole section of my original post was not even that central to the post, but merely to explain why I (and some other bloggers) were speaking aggressively about Yoo now, several months into his contract. (Ironically, it wasn't me or one of "those bloggers" who made a big deal about a possible disclosure issue, but a reporter for the New York Times. I'm sure we'll all discuss it at our next "blogger ethics panel.")  I do still find it odd, however, that the bio line at the end of Yoo's columns doesn't mention that he worked for the Bush Justice Department, his main "qualification," -- but Harold didn't address that.

One of my pet peeves about my colleagues in mainstream journalism is that they so frequently accuse bloggers of getting facts wrong -- yet almost never, ever provide an example, even though that should be easy to do if it happens so often, right? But the good thing is that if a blogger does make a mistake, it's usually corrected right away. So if Harold Jackson or any of my friendly commenters knows of something in my blogging about John Yoo that's inaccurate (something that no one has done so far in a week of bashing by conservatives, by the way), or explain what he means by "poor information," please let me know right away, and I'll happily fix it. Harold, you know my email -- it's bunchw@phillynews.com!

3) What to do. Some people are talking about protesting against Yoo outside of the Daily News and Inquirer building -- which is understandable -- and some have even proposed a boycott. I can't support that last part. Now is not the time for the Philadelphia community to turn its back on the Inquirer, not matter how angry some people may be, nor should the Inquirer have poked a stick in the eye of the community with its initial hiring of Yoo. Despite that, and perhaps improbably, I'd love to see this whole fiasco instead as the jumping off point for a real community dialogue -- in other words, not as the end of something but the beginning of something that should have been done long ago.

One of the purposes of this blog since I started it four years ago has been to urge a new kind of journalism that will be a two-way dialogue, with newsrooms that listen to, communicate with, and reflect the community. A great newspaper op-ed page would have voices that might sharply disagree with one another but that would be a) ethical and moral and b) truly of the community. John Yoo, torture advocate who mails it in from California, flunks both tests. But I hope that the real conversation about the future of journalism in Philadelphia will rise from the ashes of this, and that if we do see an, ahem, "formal announcement" of a new voice when Yoo's contract expires, whether its liberal or conservative or moderate, that it's someone from this community...our community.

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Will Bunch
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