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Aug. 23, 2013, 2:58 p.m.

This Week in Review: Censorship in the U.K., and Al Jazeera America’s promise and problems

Plus: Bradley Manning is sentenced to 35 years in prison, Patch cuts its workforce, Jeff Bezos next steps at The Washington Post, and the rest of the week’s news on journalism and the web.

Censorship and surveillance in the U.K.: The ongoing concerns about government surveillance and intimidation of journalists escalated this week thanks to two disturbing events in the U.K. involving The Guardian. In the first, David Miranda, the Brazilian partner of Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, who broke the series of NSA spying stories, was detained for nine hours in London’s Heathrow airport under a controversial U.K. terrorism law. Miranda said he wasn’t given access to Greenwald (a lawyer) or interpreter, had his phone and laptop confiscated, and ended up giving up his email and social media passwords.

Greenwald condemned the detention as a brazen attempt at intimidating him and vowed that it wouldn’t succeed (though, as The Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson pointed out, he didn’t threaten revenge). Miranda’s lawyers threatened legal action over the detention and seizure, and the British High Court granted a partial injunction limiting the degree to which the government can examine Miranda’s property.

Critics immediately wondered who directed the detention, first turning to British Prime Minister David Cameron — who did have advance warning of the investigation — then to U.S. President Barack Obama, who also had advance notice but claimed no involvement (though an anonymous American official said the reason for the detention was intimidation). British authorities claimed the detention was legally sound, but many critics (including at least one member of Parliament) questioned that assertion.

The actions were criticized from a variety of corners as the kind of brute intimidation more characteristic of authoritarian regimes than democratic governments: Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, The Atlantic Wire’s Philip Bump, Greenwald in the Guardian, Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, Andrew Sullivan of The Dish, The Atlantic’s Bruce Schneier, and British journalism professor Richard Sambrook. There were also a few who defended the U.K. government, including The Kernel’s Milo Yiannopoulos, The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges, and The Wall Street Journal editorial board.

The second development was even more alarming: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger revealed that last month, U.K. officials forced the paper to destroy its hard drives containing the NSA information that Edward Snowden had given it — an ultimately pointless move, as the paper had other copies and continued to work on the data out of its U.S. offices. As Rusbridger explained, the destruction allowed the paper to continue reporting the NSA story without threat of a lengthy legal battle.

Unlike the Miranda case, the prime minister’s office confirmed that the order to destroy the materials came directly from a cabinet secretary, acting on the prime minister’s authority. Several of the same critics also expressed their alarm at the U.K. government’s actions in this case as well: Techdirt’s Masnick, the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Timm, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Alison Langley, among others. Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy argued that it could happen in the U.S., too.

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum said it’s a sharp reminder that despite the decentralizing force of the Internet, the powers that be are still very much in power, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen argued that this incident illustrates the emergence of a network of forces countering the surveillance state: “This type of sunlight coalition — large and small pieces, loosely joined — is a countervailing power to the security forces, the people who are utterly serious when they say: ‘You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.'” And GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said it shows why we still need organizations like WikiLeaks.

There were a couple of other secondary developments on the surveillance front this week: The legal site Groklaw shut down over the revelations last week from Lavabit that any U.S.-based email service isn’t safe from the federal government. Gizmodo’s Brian Barrett and Techdirt’s Masnick lamented Groklaw’s unplugging, and TechCrunch’s John Biggs urged all of us to come to the aid of privacy online, while his colleague Gregory Ferenstein said there’s no need to quit the Internet over surveillance concerns.

Elsewhere, thanks to a year-long legal fight by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the U.S. government released a (heavily redacted) 2011 court decision finding parts of the NSA’s surveillance unconstitutional. You can see summaries of the revealed documents by The Associated Press and The Washington Post.


Al Jazeera America jumps into U.S. cable news: Al Jazeera America launched this week, and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has a great roundup on perhaps the most prominent new entry into American television news since the mid-1990s. As The New York Times noted, the channel’s debut was quite a bit more limited than its executives had hoped, as it was dropped by AT&T U-Verse at the last minute, after it was also dropped earlier this year by Time Warner Cable. Al Jazeera promptly sued AT&T over the decision.

The launch carried another complication for Al Jazeera, as it cut off the U.S. livestream for its Qatar-based Al Jazeera English channel, prompting widespread user complaints. It also blocked its YouTube videos to U.S. viewers, all as a concession to cable companies in an attempt (apparently unsuccessful thus far) to get them to carry Al Jazeera America. Fast Company’s Jay Cassano critiqued the move as anti-competitive, though Al Jazeera also hinted at some online offerings to replace their canceled U.S. stream.

There were numerous profiles of Al Jazeera America as it prepared to launch, all of them focusing on its aim to focus on in-depth, serious news: The New York Times (critiqued by The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik for its use of anonymous sourcing), The Raw Story, The Guardian, TVNewser, and On The Media all covered the channel’s hard-news orientation. Tech blogger Alex Howard and The Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox both endorsed AJAM’s embrace of substance.

At The Atlantic, George Washington University journalism professor Nikki Usher broke down the factors that will determine the Qatari government-owned channel’s success, concluding that “what makes AJAM truly odd and unpredictable, though, is that nobody knows what its metrics of success will be, because its success is not riding on market viability. It’s riding on Qatar’s approval.” Poynter’s Kelly McBride looked at five ways to measure AJAM’s success, and Slate’s Matthew Yglesias worried that that nonprofit status would lead to an indifference to impact.

USA Today’s Devin Karambelas explored whether AJAM will attract young viewers, and Josh Sternberg of Digiday looked at Al Jazeera’s “brand problem” with Americans’ bias toward it in its association with the Arab world. Northwestern professor Justin Martin urged Al Jazeera to hire an ombudsman as a way to build credibility.


Manning sentenced to 35 years: U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced this week to 35 years in military prison for leaking the documents that WikiLeaks revealed to the public in 2010, with credits for the time he’s served since 2010, including nine months of “unlawful pretrial punishment” in solitary confinement. BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin has a good sampling of accounts of the scene at the sentencing, as well as what’s next for Manning. Bloggers Marcy Wheeler and Kevin Gosztola have the best explanation of how Manning’s sentence will likely proceed.

Manning also announced this week that she is living as a woman and plans to undergo hormone therapy, asking to be referred to as Chelsea. She plans to appeal the sentence to President Obama. Philip Bump of The Atlantic Wire noted that Manning’s punishment will exceed that of everyone whose conduct she revealed, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan chastised the professional media for its complacency regarding Manning’s stiff sentence. Quinn Norton wrote a thoughtful post on Manning’s saga as an indicator of the two Americas — one that built the Internet and one that moved in and believes it owns it now.


Patch lays off hundreds: AOL’s massive hyperlocal news network Patch pulled the trigger on its layoffs last Friday, axing 40% of its workforce (about 480 people), according to Jim Romenesko. Romenesko also linked to a wiki keeping track of the fate of the hundreds of Patch sites that are being consolidated or closed. The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Gara looked at who might buy those sites, positing local newspapers as one possible suitor, and TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm examined Patch’s revenue numbers for clues to its demise.

At LinkedIn, Chris Seper maintained that Patch isn’t a failure, and here at the Lab, Ken Doctor made some similar points, arguing that Patches have been “a net plus” while examining some of the lessons from its collapse. Local news entrepreneur Dan Conover countered a statement Doctor made elsewhere that we still haven’t found a hyperlocal business model that works. “Hyperlocal doesn’t work as a massive platform to extract the maximum amount of cash for the the minimal amount of overhead from every identifiable community in America. Local can’t be commoditized.”

Bezos and The Post: The New York Times was the latest to try to read the tea leaves on Jeff Bezos’ plans for The Washington Post, exploring his history at Amazon to find that we have no real idea what he’ll do with the paper as he’s made a habit of being as reclusive and inscrutable as possible, though we do know he runs a tight ship. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said there’s no way Bezos will just leave The Post be.

At LinkedIn, Arianna Huffington made the case that Bezos has the perfect combination of big-picture innovation and attention to detail that will make him ideal to remake The Post. And Felix Salmon of Reuters explained the two ways out of The Post’s financial predicament: The low-cost method of Forbes, and the high-cost route Bezos is more likely to try.

Reading roundup: A few other stories going on during a jam-packed news-about-news week:

— Twitter introduced a headlines feature that will display related content on the pages of tweets that have been embedded on sites. Some confusion caused a brief freakout that the related stories would appear on your page anytime you embedded a tweet, but as Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon clarified, it turns out they only display on the tweet’s page. As the Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan wrote, it’s not clear if the feature is aimed at advertising, eliminating subtweets or something else, but it’s a reminder that everything embedded on your page is a “data beacon” sending information back to the company that made it.

— In the ongoing protests and violence in Egypt, numerous journalists have been kidnapped, detained, or killed, raising the ire of groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists. Meanwhile, the new Egyptian government blasted foreign journalists for what they called biased coverage.

— Slate’s Farhad Manjoo renewed the occasional ongoing discussion about the multimedia storytelling format exemplified by The New York Times’ Snow Fall by critiquing it as excessive bells and whistles for bells and whistles’ sake. PandoDaily’s David Holmes said it can be done well or poorly, and journalists should continue to experiment. And The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, explored the question of which stories get the Snow Fall treatment and why.

— British police are investigating News International — the British newspaper arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — for its phone-hacking scandal, which means the company could face corporate charges for its hacking.

— Arianna Huffington announced Thr Huffington Post, one of the most commented-on news sites on the web, would no longer allow anonymous (or pseudonymous) comments. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM disagreed with the decision.

— Finally, a couple of pieces to give some thought: Rick Edmonds of Poynter on the need to measure investigative journalism’s impact, and University of Oregon journalism professor Stephen Ward at PBS MediaShift on the need to overhaul the way we think about journalism ethics.

POSTED     Aug. 23, 2013, 2:58 p.m.
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