The much-promised peer-reviewed research post is going to slip by another day, becuase I had forgotten about a talk by Neil Lewis last night on campus. Lewis is an alumnus of Union, and a writer for the Times best known for writing about the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he was speaking as part of the Alumni Writers Series.
He had prepared remarks, but his speech still had a very off-the-cuff feel, and he tried to get through the prepared stuff quickly to get to a more open Q&A period. He talked about Guantanamo here four years ago, and joked that he was going to re-use that speech, but realized that he had changed his opinion in some important ways.
Four years ago, he said, he regarded Guantanamo and other civil liberties outrages as an example of rapid over-reach by the executive branch, that was starting to be corrected by the judicial branch, through a series of court decisions that consistently went against the Bush administration. He still thinks that’s true, but is less optimistic than four years ago, because, as he noted, not one person has been set free as a direct result of court action. He attributes this to a certain judicial timidity– judges are hesitant to issue direct orders to people who might not follow them.
It was a fairly interesting talk, on the whole, but I was surprised and somewhat disappointed by the amount of deference he gave to bad arguments.
In talking about Guantanamo, he said several times that he’s interested to see what the Democratic candidates plan to do about it, because he said it’s a real problem what to do with these people. There doesn’t seem to be much of an issue to me– either you declare them prisoners of war, subject to the Geneva Conventions, and treat them accordingly, or you bring them to the United States and give them criminal trials with the full array of legal protections. He wasn’t willing to say that, either because of some misguided idea about journalistic objectivity, or because he’s bought into the bad arguments of the Bush Administration that these people are Telepathic Terrorist Ninjas who are too dangerous to be allowed to even talk to a lawyer, let alone be given a fair trial.
That was frustrating to hear, and sort of typical of my frustration with the talk. Lews was an amiable guy, and chatted interestingly with a number of students and faculty after the talk, but never really expressed a definite opinion about much of anything. The only really definitive statement he made was that he’s really strongly opposed to news with an ideological slant, in the mode of Fox News or British tabloids.
As a blogger in attendance at a talk by a media figure, I was contractually obliged to ask the “New Media” question, namely “Do you think that blogs, YouTube, etc. are changing the journalism business for the better, for the worse, or just making things noisier?” His answer was about what you would expect: Blogs and the Web generally are killing the newspaper business, because nobody has figured out how to make serious money with them. They also don’t do much if any reporting, and just re-package and interpret stories from the “old media.” On the positive side, though, they make it much harder for public figures to get away with anything. They’re changing the business, he said, and taking us somewhere new, but nobody knows where we’re going.