The sound of journalistic credibility gasping its last breath.
Naomi Wolf’s rebuttal to the criticism she has garnered in response to her rant in the Guardian last week is non-responsive, and frankly, bizarre. She writes specifically in response to Josh Holland of Alternet, but Holland’s criticism mirrors my criticism, as well as karoli (Crooks and Liars), Scott Lemieux (Lawyers, Guns, and Money), Corey Robin (Al Jazeera English), and Will Wilkinson (The Economist) among others.
Josh Holland’s article “Naomi Wolf’s Response to my Critique Largely Evades the Issues at Hand,” is a must read. Holland writes,
It’s disappointing that Naomi Wolf’s response to my criticism of her November 25 Guardian column – and earlier blog-post — doesn’t address the many misstatements of fact, logical leaps and baseless assertions which I highlighted.
Wolf instead spends much time on a general discussion of heightened federal surveillance and the increased coordination between federal and local law enforcement agencies, which she says I am naïve not to acknowledge, and devotes an enormous amount of space to establishing that federal law enforcement agencies have had some sort of role in at least monitoring the Occupy Movement and offering some guidance to local law enforcement agencies.
Holland’s assessment is spot on. Wolf’s article rambles on for eight pages, and ultimately, doesn’t say anything relevant.
Wolf leads off by criticizing a claim that neither Holland nor any of her critics has never made: that DHS had no involvement with the crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street locations:
She claims repeatedly and falsely that I wrote that DHS had “no involvement whatsoever,” when I acknowledged that DHS had reportedly offered advice to local law enforcement agencies. All of the paragraphs she devotes to discussing the Freedom of Information request filed by the National Lawyers Guild – and the fact that DHS hasn’t denied any role – are wasted space. DHS officials have stated that they had some minimal supporting role. That isn’t in dispute.
She then proceeds to entirely ignore the substance of Holland’s (and others’) criticism of her article in the Guardian. And that criticism is this: her repeated assertions that the crackdown conspiracy reaches up into the highest echelons of government, and her belief proffered as fact that the federal government is coordinating the crackdowns by providing tactical assistance and instructions to local authorities are based upon an article written by journalist Rick Ellis in Examiner.com, which article was substantively retracted by Ellis himself. (Indeed, Wolf nowhere mentions Ellis’s article nor does she provide any explanation for her prior reliance on Ellis’s claims to form the basis of her Guardian article.)
Her critics do not assert that the Feds are categorically not actively coordinating the crackdown, but rather that Wolf has provided no clear evidence that they are.
Rather than specifically address this criticism, she flagrantly ignores Ellis substantively retracted claims that a DOJ official confirmed federal coordination, and provides “new” evidence to support her theory. Her evidence is, to put it kindly, ludicrous. Wolf claims,
My evidence for federal coordination with local police exceeds the Wonkette citation, which was not, in fact, the basis of my confidence in writing about this coordination in the crackdown. I relied, rather, on many other sources of evidence. Among them, I was relying on what NYPD told me itself. I am certain that NYPD coordinates with federal authorities in OWS-related arrests because an NYPD official informed me that they did so through the bars of my cell, as part of his formal warning to me before my release, apparently to deter me from activities that might result in my rearrest. As I reported in the Guardian on 19 October 2011, part of the seventh precinct sergeant’s caution to me about what could happen to me if I was arrested again, if I “rejoined [my] friends the protesters”, was a threat based on his assertion of federal coordination with the arrests. He told me that in a second arrest, I would be photographed and fingerprinted, and the data fed into a federal database, to follow me forever. My partner, Avram Ludwig, confirmed that he was given the same warning about his data being fed into a federal database in the event of a future arrest.
Her evidence of a federal conspiracy to crackdown on occupiers in furtherance of a scheme to protect their economic privilege (which Wolf contends would be infringed on the off-chance that OWS could draft and manage to pass legislation closing a “loophole” that permits Congress to engage in what is essentially insider trading) is a sergeant at a local NYPD precinct informing her that her fingerprints would be fed into a federal database.
Anyone who has ever seen an episode of CSI knows that fingerprints are routinely fed into a federal database called AFIS:
The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) is a national automated fingerprint identification and criminal history system maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). IAFIS provides automated fingerprint search capabilities, latent searching capability, electronic image storage, and electronic exchange of fingerprints and responses. IAFIS maintains one of the largest biometric databases in the world, second only to Mexico with 70 million records, containing the fingerprints and potential corresponding criminal history information for more than 66 million subjects. IAFIS has 66 million subjects in the criminal master file, and more than 25 million civil prints.
Employment background checks and legitimate firearms purchases cause citizens to be permanently recorded in the system.
Fingerprints are voluntarily submitted to the FBI by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. These agencies acquire the fingerprints through criminal arrests or from non-criminal sources, such as employment background checks and the US-VISIT program. The FBI then catalogs the fingerprints along with any criminal history linked with the subject.
It stands to reason, therefore, that a cop warning Wolf that she would be fingerprinted if she were arrested a second time is proof of absolutely nothing. (As I understand it, most people are fingerprinted the first time they are arrested, and I don’t need to strenuously flex my brain muscles in order to divine a reason that Wolf — “standing lawfully on the sidewalk in an evening gown” — was not fingerprinted upon her arrest.)
After providing this dud of a smoking gun, Wolf goes on a lengthy tangent about the creation of DHS “security zones” in order to counter Holland’s purported conclusion that Wolf has “no evidence of DHS or federal coordination with municipal police on protest surveillance and management” (which, again, is not Holland’s conclusion by any stretch of the imagination.) Nothing in this section of her article has any relevance to the question at hand, which is whether Wolf can support her claims of a federal conspiracy with facts rather than rank speculation drawn from irrelevant historical analyses.
Then Wolf launches into a tirade that I, as an attorney, find baffling. Wolf writes at length about the various FOIA requests propounded by DC Partnership for Civil Justice Fund as well as Truthout‘s Jason Leopold. She writes that both Leopold and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard (the executive director of DC Partnership for Civil Justice Fund) were contacted by DHS and asked to narrow the scope of their FOIA requests. Apparently, the DHS asked that the FOIA requests be limited to information in the possession of senior staff.
Wolf quotes in full Verheyden-Hilliard’s letter in response to DHS declining to narrow the scope of the FOIA requests, and, of course, sees DHS’s response to that letter as further evidence of a nefarious plot:
So it appears from this document, and from Ms Verheyden-Hilliard’s summary of her conversation to which it refers, that DHS is actively negotiating with at least one of the organisations that submitted the FOIA request, to narrow the scope of what the FOIA will compel the agency to reveal. This letter appears to confirm that DHS is arguing to limit the reach of the entities’ FOIA request: DHS is asking that the request only apply to “senior staff”, which would allow DHS to conceal the involvement of any number of officials and agents below senior levels. They are taking this position rather than simply turning over the initially requested documents. If Mr Holland were right, that DHS had no involvement in the crackdown, they would have no disincentive to do so. For Holland not to have made any such an enquiry – and then to conclude that the crackdowns were merely a result of local policing and local politics – is, in my view, seriously inadequate reporting.
In reality, the above-described back and forth on the scope of FOIA requests is so common that it barely warrants mentioning. As any lawyer will tell you, FOIA requests (like document requests in litigation) are often so overly broad as to be burdensome or harassing. (These are legal terms.) Lawyers often fight for months, both in court and out, over the breadth of document requests. Requests seeking “all documents that refer or relate to X, Y, Z” are often found to be burdensome and harassing as a legal matter.
So, let’s take a look at the FOIA request propounded by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund:
We are requesting information related to law information related to law enforcement involvement in discussions, communications and technical support regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Occupy encampments in cities around the country. This request encompasses any law enforcement involvement, including, specifically but not limited to the Department of Justice and interagency efforts that the Department of Justice may participate in such as the Joint Terrorism Task Forces or Fusion Centers.
This request includes, but is not limited to, information reflecting communications involving law enforcement and state or municipal representatives and/or private consultants or analysts pertaining to the Occupy movement, the Occupy encampments, and law enforcement or government response thereto.
Believe me when I tell you, that is as overbroad a document request as I’ve ever seen during my ten years of lawyering. In response to such requests, federal agencies and corporations often request that such documents be limited to senior executives or officials. Otherwise, the parties to whom the requests are sent end up digging through the electronic and paper files of every clerk, secretary, and intern in the organization, and 9 times out of 10, such “low-level” employees or staff have no responsive information that more senior officials don’t. Moreover, the parties often agree in advance on what “senior staff” means so that the documents produced in response to the request are complete. Certainly, Wolf’s speculation that DHS desire to narrow the document requests to less than “every document you have in your agency” is nefarious may be accurate. The problem is, Wolf presents her opinions and speculation as fact. This is irresponsible.
Essentially, Wolf’s argument is “Trust me. I know what I’m talking about.” She really drives that point home by arguing she has personal experience with these sorts of things, and it is “unquestionable” to her that Peter King and others overseeing DHS would be influenced by their own economic desires, and it is “obvious” to her that the White House would, in turn, be influenced by Congress:
Holland may find it hard to believe, but from the experience of 14 months I spent in total as a formal and informal political adviser, it is unquestionable to me that Representative Peter King and others on the subcommittee overseeing DHS would be influenced by their own, and by their colleagues’, wishes for avoiding the financial transparency posed by OWS demands. It is also obvious to me that the White House would be influenced by Congress’ wishes on these issues, even though DHS is, indeed, part of the executive branch. This network of influence is simply how the system works.
Got it? It’s just how the system works. Trust her. She’s an expert. Again, this is irresponsible.
In the Guardian article describing the various responses to Wolf’s article (and which contains a quote from me, so huzzah!), Matt Seaton concludes as follows:
Whether you see Wolf’s article as reckless conspiracy theory-mongering or passionately engaged partisanship probably depends not only on how you see the Occupy movement and its policing, but also on what you consider the role of opinion journalism to be and how it should treat facts versus views.
No. The two concepts are not related. This is about journalistic standards, not partisanship.
If we as liberals and progressives no longer require opinion journalism to be grounded in fact; if opinion journalists are permitted to state “Shocking Truths” based on nothing but what is “obvious” or “unquestionable” to them; if opinion journalists are permitted to substitute facts for rank speculation, then we all may as well take our cyanide pills right now, because guess what? We’re in Fox News territory, and that is a horrifying prospect.
Had Wolf’s article been couched as an opinion piece, I would have no problem with it. Had Wolf posed the question “Are the Feds cracking down on Occupy Wall Street, and could this violence be the result of Congress working in concert with the White House to protect their economic privilege?” then her articles would be fair — they would be honest. But that’s not what she did.
What’s worse — as evidenced by her response to Holland’s article — she actually believes her opinions are facts. She knows what’s going on. It’s obvious to her. It’s unquestionable. Trust her.
This isn’t journalism. It’s error-riddled pablum grounded in hearsay, and, yes, it is irresponsible.
[cross-posted at Balloon Juice]