Category Archives: Political political

Another Meaning of “Access”

Pardon me while my head explodes.

The word “access” is one with generally good connotations among librarians. It’s in a lot of mission statements. It takes on a more mercenary meaning when it refers to the relationship between the press and power. And The New York Times has a very scary story about it today. Forgive me if what follows seems a little politicized, but hey – I take this personally.

Those retired generals who go on television to give their expert analysis? Many of them were briefed by the Pentagon. And given contracts for reconstruction and whatnot. That’s another definition of access. It’s no wonder that people have a lack of trust in the press. As the number of newsroom employees shrinks, these hacks pick up the slack.

An example: During the “Revolt of the Generals” – ones who were not paid by Fox or CNN to be experts, but ex-military officers who criticized the conduct of the war – two of the shills put their talking heads together to write a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, got stuck, and contacted the Pentagon, which quickly forwarded talking points and statistics. You could say they were simply going to the source, or you could call it ghostwriting. War room, meet news room.

news room

In a class I teach, we just talked about how anxiety is used to form and shape social issues. Fear is a potent lever for influencing public opinion, and here’s how it works:

First, you define an issue by naming a situation that is believed to be a challenge to commonly-held moral values (in this case “the war on terror,” a phrase that predates 9/11, just as warrantless wiretapping did, but the phrase became viscerally meaningful thereafter.)

Claims-makers associate their agendas with that threatening condition so they can gain support. (That wall we’re building between us and Mexico? That’s to keep our borders secure from terrorists. Right.)

The domain of concern is expanded to include as many potential victims as possible. Don’t just be afraid. Be very afraid.

Issues are typified through dramatic story-telling (like telling us a handful of delusional nutcases in Miami were a credible threat to the Sears Tower a few months before the 2006 election when they were, in fact, a handful of delusional nutcases given an action movie script by a federal informant).

As James Kincaid has said, “Doing away with demons is only one part of the job; the other is providing them.” And of course when you provide hydra-headed demons, somebody has to give you lots of money to keep lopping their heads off.

Communication studies scholar Joel Best says there are four key players in the formation of social issues: the media who seek compelling stories to tell, activists who want to promote their solution to the crisis, governments that can use issues to gain support for regulating behavior, and experts who want their work to have influence. In this case, the Pentagon pretty much has it all wrapped up. The experts are ex-generals paid by the media for their access to the Pentagon; the Pentagon pays the ex-generals for their access to the airwaves and writes their copy. The solutions that are promoted put money into their pockets. It’s all pretty well summed up in this snip from the NY Times:

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon’s dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called “information dominance.” In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent [my emphasis].

And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit “key influentials” — movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld’s priorities.

Forget “authoritative and independent.” “Perceived” is the operative word, here.

The news is never objective. It’s influenced by claims-makers and by audiences that ask the media to tell compelling stories. But clearly, the line between “expert” and “shill” has blurred here, and the shills are getting government contracts. The pentagon has cynically controlled the manufacture of crisis.

Sorry, Ike. We didn’t take you seriously enough. It’s now the military industrial and information complex.

(This is largely cross-posted from my blog; the image is courtesy of Eric Olson.)

Selective Dissemination of Information

A researcher recently discovered something odd: she couldn’t use “abortion” in a keyword search Popline, a standard database on reproductive health hosted at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. What the–?

Turns out, it’s now a stop word. Like “a” and “the.” Something you want excluded from a search. What the–?

Turns out, federal funding can’t go to anything that supports abortion, and the database gets funding from USAID, so to keep the database from being stopped itself …

There are workarounds to find the 25,000 or so records in the database that deal with the topic, but … shhhh! We can’t talk about it.

I waited a bit before posting this, thinking it had to be a … I don’t know, a late and not very funny April Fool’s joke. But the joke’s on us.

More at Wired. With an update here.

UPDATE: the other shoe has dropped. Here’s a press release from the Dean of the JH School of Public Health:

Statement Regarding POPLINE Database

I was informed this morning that the word “abortion” was blocked as a search term in the POPLINE family planning database administered by the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs. POPLINE provides evidence-based information on reproductive health and family planning and is the world’s largest database on these issues.

USAID, which funds POPLINE, found two items in the database related to abortion that did not fit POPLINE criteria. The agency then made an inquiry to POPLINE administrators. Following this inquiry, the POPLINE administrators at the Center for Communication Programs made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term.

I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore “abortion” as a search term immediately. I will also launch an inquiry to determine why this change occurred.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction.

Sincerely,

Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH
Dean, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Okaaaaay….. that’s good, but it does seem a not unreasonable response to being told certain information does not belong in a database on reproductive health because it’s against the party line. So – will any more shoes drop? Or should I say sabots…?

Unconstitutional! but hold that thought…

Yes! A judge has just said (again) that NSLs are unconstitutional!! Well, duh, we knew that. But it’s good to have it on record, and with a civics lesson built right in.

Specifically, the automatic and unlimited gag order, and the indiscriminate way in which they’ve been handed out, offers the FBI an opportunity to suppress speech based on its content – broadly and indefinitely. That’s a violation of the first amendment. Later in the decision the judge apologizes for stating the obvious, but points out that our system of government is built on a separation and balance of powers. Congress may decide benightedly to hand its authority over to the executive, but they can’t make laws that do the same with the powers of the judicial branch. That’s a violation of the doctrine of the separation of powers, so NSLs are unconstitutional on those grounds. (The law, passed by Congress, says the executive doesn’t have to pay attention to those men in black dresses. Well … that’s not within their authority. Whoops!)

The decision (built around a John Doe – but not the John Doe of the library case, because the government dropped their gag order to avoid losing in court) – has been stayed pending appeal. So if you get an NSL, don’t tell anyone.

Meanwhile, in another matter, the Justice Department just told the FCC that they oppose net neutrality. Their pals at AT&T might suffer and that would hurt consumers because … uh … let’s see …. oh yeah! If AT&T couldn’t charge more, they couldn’t use that money to develop the Internet to its full potential and that would be bad for us. Screw libraries and universities, what do they contribute? Bunch of troublemakers.

Urgent Action Needed On NIH Policy – Call Your Reps

A friend writes:

You all know firsthand as academic librarians that the present system of scholarly communication is badly broken. Faster and wider sharing of knowledge, like that funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), would fuel the advance of science. Broad communication of research results is an essential component of the US government’s investment in science. The NIH strongly supports this goal and has instituted a voluntary system intended to make scientific research more broadly available for use. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that system is not working. That is why NIH is now asking Congress to include language through appropriations to make the program mandatory.

Recently, we’ve seen wonderful developments as both the US House and Senate Appropriations Committees have approved language in their FY08 Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Bills that would require NIH-funded researchers to make their final manuscripts publicly accessible within 12 month of publication in peer reviewed journals.

We need your help to keep the momentum going. The full House of Representatives and the full Senate will vote on their respective measures this summer. The House is expected to convene on Tuesday, July 17. We’re asking that you contact your US Representative and your US Senators by phone or fax as soon as possible and no later than Monday afternoon. Urge them to maintain the Appropriations Committee language. (Find talking points and contact info for your legislators in the ALA Legislative Action Center. It is entirely possible that an amendment will be made on the floor of the House to delete the language in the NIH policy.

Want to know more? Listen to an interview with Heather Joseph of SPARC on the ALA Washington Office District Dispatch blog. Find background on the issue along with tips on communicating effectively with your legislators in the last two issues of ACRL’s Legislative Update and at the Alliance for Taxpayer Access website.

It’s critical that you, as constituents, express your support for the current language in the appropriations bill that would make the NIH public access policy mandatory. Tell your legislators what it would mean to you, your students, your faculty and your community if you could all gain access to this research. It is especially important for supporters to speak up now given how vocal opponents have been (see recent LJ Academic Newswire article and AAP letter.