[Marxism] John Miller, NSA whitewasher, joins DiBlasio's police department

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jan 4 16:43:56 MST 2014



NY Times December 22, 2013
When ‘60 Minutes’ Checks Its Journalistic Skepticism at the Door

Last week, a study commissioned by the president concluded that the 
National Security Agency had reached too far into the private lives of 
Americans. The study, which came after a series of journalistic 
revelations exposing the agency’s surveillance practices, recommended 
numerous reforms that would curb the N.S.A.’s prerogatives. President 
Obama said he was “open to many” of the suggestions.

It was exactly the kind of news-making moment that “60 Minutes” — 
America’s leading purveyor of serious television news — has often been 
responsible for creating. For more than four decades, the program has 
exposed C.I.A. abuses, rogue military contractors and hundreds of 
corporate villains.

But where was “60 Minutes” on the N.S.A. story? The Sunday before the 
damning study, the program produced a segment that scanned as a friendly 
infomercial for the agency. Reported by John Miller, a CBS News 
reporter, the piece included extensive interviews with Gen. Keith 
Alexander, the director of the N.S.A.

In a scene that served as something of a metaphor for the whole segment, 
the producers negotiated access to the Black Chamber, a supersecret area 
where the nation’s top code breakers work. The door is briefly opened, 
we see a deserted office hall that looks like any other and then the 
door is closed. We get a look in, but we learn nothing.

Coming as it does on the heels of the now-discredited Benghazi report — 
in which “60 Minutes” said it was fooled by an eyewitness who was 
apparently nothing of the kind — the N.S.A. segment raises the question 
of whether the program has not just temporarily lost its mojo, but its 
skepticism as well. It didn’t help that the day after the piece aired, a 
federal judge ruled that the agency’s program of collecting phone 
records was most likely unconstitutional.

In between its coverage of Benghazi and the N.S.A., “60 Minutes” drew 
criticism for letting Amazon promote a drone delivery program that is 
years from actually happening, if it happens at all. It was a fanciful 
look at the commercial future, though Charlie Rose, the reporter, also 
asked Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, some tough questions: 
whether providing cloud services to the C.I.A. was a conflict, and 
whether its “ruthless” pursuit of market share was fair.

Let’s stipulate that “60 Minutes” has been and continues to be a 
journalistic treasure, which just this year has done hard-hitting pieces 
on the damaging practices of credit report agencies, the high rate of 
suicide among returning veterans, and how tainted pain medication that 
caused fungal meningitis killed dozens and sickened hundreds. Mr. Rose 
also landed an interview with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, 
about chemical weapons. At a time when both the definition and execution 
of news has dimmed, “60 Minutes” stands out.

Historically, the news that “60 Minutes” was in the lobby or on the 
phone has struck fear in the hearts of both the stalwart and the venal. 
The show made its targets quake and audiences thrill as it did the hard, 
often amazing work of creating consequence and accountability.

But in the last few months, there have been significant lapses into 
credulousness, when reporters have been more “gee whiz” than “what 
gives?” The news that “60 Minutes” is calling could be viewed as less 
ominous and more of an opportunity. More than once this year, the show 
has traded skepticism for access.

When it comes to the access game, everyone, even “60 Minutes,” plays 
ball on occasion. When it seeks to lighten things up, as it did with 
Taylor Swift, or Maggie Smith of “Downton Abbey,” no one expects hidden 
cameras or brutal interrogations. Everyone, including the audience, 
knows the score.

But viewers expect the show to bring its A game, and deserve it, when it 
takes on a huge issue like the N.S.A., to serve as a stand-in for the 
American people and ask the uncomfortable questions.

Mr. Miller is a former high-ranking official in the Office of the 
Director of National Intelligence and a former spokesman of the F.B.I. 
whose worldview is built on going after bad guys and keeping the rest of 
us safe. In his report, Mr. Alexander was allowed to parse his 
responses, suggesting that the collection and retention of telephone 
metadata from Americans is not a big deal — it is — and that the agency 
is “not collecting everybody’s email, we’re not collecting everybody’s 
phone things.” The report delivered to the president last week said that 
the agency was doing a great deal of both and that it should stop.

After taking over “60 Minutes” from Don Hewitt less than 10 years ago, 
Jeffrey Fager has managed to maintain the journalistic momentum of the 
news division’s crown jewel. In 2011, he was named chairman of CBS News, 
and since then has earned high marks for helping restore hard news at 
the evening news program and developing a distinct identity for “CBS 
This Morning” by emphasizing topical coverage.

But people inside and outside the news division have questioned whether 
those dual roles are stretching him too thin. An internal CBS 
investigation into the Benghazi fiasco cited fundamental lapses in 
execution, including missed opportunities to check the story of Dylan 
Davies, a contractor who had told conflicting accounts about his 
whereabouts on the night of the attacks on the American diplomatic mission.

Of course, any news organization can be fooled — The New York Times 
famously fell short with its reports of supposed weapons of mass 
destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war — but it was hard to watch the 
N.S.A. segment and not wonder who was minding the store.

On what planet is it fine for someone like Mr. Miller, a former federal 
law enforcement official, to be the one to do a big segment on a major 
government security agency? Mr. Miller got the story because the N.S.A. 
said yes to his pitch — why would it not? — but other journalists at “60 
Minutes” without his potential conflicts were interested as well. No 
matter how the deal was brokered, the optics were terrible and the 
N.S.A. got its hands on a megaphone with nary a critic in sight.

Mr. Fager would not speak on the record, perhaps in part because he was 
pummeled after initially defending the Benghazi broadcast; when it fell 
apart, he was forced to put Lara Logan, the reporter, and the producer 
on leave. But while declining to comment, he made it clear that he very 
much had his eye on the ball at “60 Minutes” and pushed back against any 
notion of institutional malaise.

Mr. Miller was more than happy to explain his N.S.A. segment, which he 
said he would not change if he had the chance. As a reporter, he has a 
blend of insider knowledge and careful inquiry that has been lauded by 
many, including me, especially during the school shootings in Newtown, 
Conn. He is nothing if not confident, dismissing his critics as 
ankle-biting, agenda-ridden bloggers who could not be compelled to get 
out of their pajamas and do actual reporting.

“I fully reject the criticism from you and others,” he told me. “The 
N.S.A. story has been a fairly one-way dialogue. There has been no 
conversation and when you do hear from the N.S.A., it is in a terse, 
highly vetted statement.”

“We went there, we asked every question we wanted to, listened to the 
answers, followed up as we wished, and our audience can decide what and 
who they believe. As we constructed it, the N.S.A. was a story about a 
debate, not a villain, and we added to that debate with important 
information. I fail to understand how a shrill argument for the sake of 
creating televised drama would have accomplished anything.”

Mr. Miller is a highly respected reporter, and stand-up enough to come 
on the phone and defend his work. (He is reportedly heading back into 
government to work for his former boss, William Bratton, in the New York 
City Police Department.) But I’m pretty sure that the credentials that 
make him valuable on a mass shooting are the same ones that create a 
conflict on the N.S.A. segment. And Ms. Logan, who raced past 
conflicting information to a predetermined conclusion and pulled the 
program into a ditch in the process, should get more than Christmas off 
for her lapses.

The DNA of “60 Minutes” is adversarial, investigative and most of all 
accurate. It would be a cheap and easy trick to roll Mike Wallace back 
from the grave for the sake of contrast, but of course the N.S.A. would 
not have let him near the place. Maybe that is the point. “60 Minutes” 
is a calling, not an assignment, and the program should not be the kind 
of outfit that leaves its skepticism at the door to get inside.

Email: carr at nytimes.com;

Twitter: @carr2n

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