Obama’s Inner Lincoln & What Voters Want

05 June 2014

Obama’s Lincoln Moment


There was a particularly tense period during the summer of 1862 when Abraham Lincoln finally shed his folksy demeanor and confessed some of his real frustrations as president.  Sounding more like Tony Soprano than the Great Emancipator, Old Abe growled in a private letter, “I distrust the wisdom if not the sincerity of friends, who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me.”   Then adding a line which represented for him a kind of leadership credo, Lincoln wrote firmly, “It may as well be understood, once [and] for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”

After the various political events of the last week, it’s not too difficult to imagine President Obama offering an equally grim statement of executive purpose.  With the firing of Eric Shinseki, the dramatic (and perhaps illegal) POW swap for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, and following the defiant announcement of prospective new EPA rules on carbon emissions, the beleaguered president has apparently reached his  “any available card” moment.  It’s certainly the first time, in quite a long time really, that he’s appeared almost Lincolnian.

The adjective “Lincolnian” conjures up many associations, but chief among them should be toughness.  Despite his genial reputation as a story-teller and prairie-bred outsider, President Lincoln was unyielding during his time in Washington in the pursuit of any policy objectives which he considered important.  He did not shy from confrontations with either enemies or erstwhile friends. Historians still debate whether he favored union over emancipation (or vice versa), but there’s no doubting that he was quite relentless in the pursuit of both goals during the Civil War.

The adjective “Lincolnian” conjures up many associations, but chief among them should be toughness.

Most important, he proved utterly demanding as a boss.  In four years as Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln worked through four generals-in-chief, two secretaries of war, and dozens of hapless field officers.  During just one nine-month stretch of the grueling conflict, the Army of the Potomac, which was the main Union fighting force in the Eastern Theatre, experienced four different commanding generals –all under intense pressure from the top.  Lincoln even fired one of those figures right in the middle of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania and just days before the Battle of Gettysburg.

More: What can we learn from “Honest Abe”?

Military officials were not the only ones to face Lincoln’s fierce scrutiny.  Only two members of the Lincoln cabinet, the so-called “team of rivals,” actually survived into his second term.  At best, they were an unhappy and uncertain team. Lincoln even dumped his relatively innocuous vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, in order to replace him for partisan reasons with Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson (a supremely catastrophic decision, by the way).  According to one of Lincoln’s top White House aides (who also departed following that exhausting first term), the president simply ruled his cabinet “with tyrannous authority.”

Nobody seemed to satisfy The Tycoon, as his aides called him, at least not for long.  Even General Grant, whom Lincoln respected greatly as among his toughest fighters, still received occasionally sharp presidential telegrams reminding him to stay on task.  There was one missive fired off to Grant’s headquarters in August 1864 that truly captures the intensity of Lincoln’s behind-the-scenes spirit of command.  Unimpressed by some boast from Grant about plans to deploy his various forces, Lincoln tersely reminded him to follow up carefully on all of his orders.  “I repeat to you,” the Washington-weary president warned, “it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.”

Whether right or wrong, Obama’s use of presidential signing statements and assertions of inherent Article II authority are as sweeping as any of the most imperial presidents.

Watch it every day, and hour, and force it.  That’s the Lincolnian advice that President Obama now finally seems to be taking to heart.  After enduring last year’s debacle surrounding the healthcare.gov launch, he is approaching the scandal at the VA differently, even at the cost of a good man’s career.  After previously hesitating over his authority to launch airstrikes in Syria, Obama is now practically defying Congress by ignoring the explicit statutory prohibition that forbids him from transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay without providing proper notice.  Whether right or wrong, his use of presidential signing statements and assertions of inherent Article II authority are as sweeping as any of the most imperial presidents, including Lincoln.  That is also why his administration’s proposed use of an executive agency ruling to regulate carbon emissions seems so threatening to some in Washington.  An emboldened president with little left to lose seems fully ready to demand greater action from his team and to wield his executive power in ways that will directly confront some of his most intractable enemies. Amazing as it sounds just a year after the government shutdown, the signs do seem to point toward yet another round of intensifying partisan combat.

Related: Learn about the newly recovered Lincoln speech

Historians are notoriously bad at predicting the future, but I am one who’s willing to bet in this case on President Obama.  He’s always held more cards than he has shown and if he’s truly ready to play them –all of them– then it’s possible that his “paragraph” in the history books, as he almost forlornly described it a few months ago, might just be stretched into a full chapter or two.

About the Author

Matthew Pinsker
Matthew Pinsker is the Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College, Fellow at New America and author of a forthcoming Lincoln biography from W.W. Norton tentatively entitled, Boss Lincoln: Understanding Lincoln’s Partisan Leadership. 

Give the People What They Want

The recent sweeping electoral victory of Narendra Modi and his political party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, in national polls across India were rightly seen as a historic moment in the world’s largest democracy. And yet, there was a whiff of the familiar about the election: a “can-do” leader in an emerging economy, often with a checkered past, promises to shore up a flagging economic ship and cleanse the rotten politics of the past.

India’s politics and problems are complex but the Modi pitch at election time was fairly simple: vote for me and my party, for we know how to deliver the goods. Jobs. Roads. Education. Electricity. Healthcare. Foreign investment. Good governance. Fill-in-the-blank-with-your-aspiration here.

Here was the “can-do” governor and son of a chai-walla  (tea-seller) who brought growth, development, and a business-friendly regulatory environment to his state of Gujarat, saying to all of India: let me bring the same to you. This was not an election about meta-themes or grand narratives or culture wars or class division. It was an election about who can credibly deliver the goods.

We’ve seen this movie elsewhere, and are likely to see it again and again in emerging markets where robust growth levels have hit walls, but people’s aspirations have not. In fact, we saw a B-grade version of this movie in India’s strategic rival and neighbor, Pakistan, last year. Old-school politician Nawaz Sharif, the current Prime Minister, contested his election in 2013 at a time when Pakistanis, like Indians, saw their country flailing after a period of growth. He prevailed in the election on a platform that emphasized economic revival and solving one big problem: the country’s staggering electricity shortages.

Never mind the fact that Sharif is a former Prime Minister associated with numerous corruption allegations. But his past experience and background as a wealthy businessman may have helped Sharif, establishing him as the campaign’s deliverer of goods, and can-do candidate, if a less inspired one than Modi.

Pakistanis may have held their nose a bit in the vote, but they gave it to Sharif nonetheless, not the handsome, charismatic cricket star, Imran Khan, who played populism and the politics of xenophobia. Khan misunderstood his era. Yes, the people are angry about corruption and the old boys network, but they want a credible “can-do’er,” not a charismatic “j’accuse’er.”

European voting publics, by contrast, seemed to vote for the “j’accusers,” in recent European Parliament elections, to put it mildly, and the racists and xenophobes and quasi-fascists, to put it frankly. Perhaps the “brown people” are more temperate in their voting than advanced, “civilized” Europe.

In his insightful new book on China, Evan Osnos, the former China-based New Yorker correspondent, described the many trends, known as “fevers,” that captivated the Chinese. “The greatest fever of all,” he writes, “was aspiration, a belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life.”

Across the world, an aspirational class is emerging, and this class is not confined merely to the surging global middle class. The poor, too, have caught the aspirational “fever,” and they are looking for candidates who will support their “belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life.” If China had free elections, I’d put my money on the can-do candidates that promised to deliver the economic goods, not necessarily the ones that promised greater freedoms and democracy (to my regret).

More: How can the U.S. better harness the global flows?

India’s Congress Party dynasty had been thoroughly delegitimized by their inability to deliver the goods. Never mind Modi’s deafening silence on the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed more than 1,000 Muslims. Ethnic separatism doesn’t play well in this narrative, so Modi didn’t play it. He played post-ideological, development-first, business-friendly. “Toilets first, temples later,” he would say, or his other zinger: foreign businesses should get “the red carpet, not red tape.”

In Indonesia, another “can-do” candidate is emerging who speaks to the aspirations of millions of Indonesians. The leading presidential contender, Joko Widowo, is a “can-do” former mayor and current Jakarta governor with a Modi-like track record of development and efficiency without the Modi-like baggage.

Widowo evinces no clear ideology, other than a roll-up-the-sleeves, hands-on approach to solving problems and a quietly efficient vibe. He was famed for turning around a crime-ridden city in central Java and has won plaudits as an effective governor of Jakarta who pays surprise visits to municipal councils and walks the streets to measure traffic problems. He has positioned himself as the candidate to turn Indonesia’s economy around by tackling its infrastructure deficit and improving governance.

Widowo will likely never make a memorable speech or thump his chest to a roaring crowd, but he understands his era: the people want effective governance and a better economy. They are not interested in ideology or debates about the past.

We see this trend in Latin America, too. In Mexico, another promising emerging market that has experienced sluggish growth of late and a messy aftermath to its democratization, voters in 2012 brought back the ruthlessly pragmatic Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), the authoritarian rulers of the country for much of the 20th Century.  The party candidate Enrique Peña Nieto’s slogan could very well have been: “You may not like us, but we’re the bastards who can get stuff done”.

Even in conflict-riven Ukraine, this global narrative holds. The winner of that nation’s recent presidential election, Petro Poroshenko, is a billionaire chocolate tycoon. Ukrainian voters are hoping he can transfer his confectionary acumen to the nation as a whole by reviving a moribund economy and finding a way out of its existential geopolitical fix.

Of course, these “can-do” candidates and leaders face a multiplicity of different, complex environments that cannot be solved with election sloganeering, but their victories or pending victories tell us something about voting publics in emerging economies today: they are hungry for jobs, not ideology, economic opportunity, not political opportunism.

Aspirations may differ across countries and cultures, but the poor Indian who dreams of going to medical school, the fed-up Indonesian businessman who simply wants his country to fix their traffic mess, or the Pakistani small business owner who just wants to have regular electricity represent a quiet, but powerful, movement of silent majorities that simply want better governance and expanded opportunities.

This is the temper of the times in the emerging world, and the “can-do” candidates who tap it can expect to ride to victory.

About the Author

Afshin Molavi
Afshin is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, where he works on emerging markets. He is also a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

Will New EPA Rules Change Our Carbon Future?

Flickr/Kim Seng

The EPA released tough new regulations this week, part of an ongoing, Holy Grail/Lord of the Rings/Horcrux Hunt kind of effort  to cut U.S. carbon emissions. But, as is true of all global energy-use questions, is the Obama Administration just playing whack-a-mole, while the coal it tries to curb just finds its way to other customers?  And, is cutting carbon emissions really the Holy Grail, or is it keeping hydrocarbons in the Earth forever, as global warming advocates say we must? Will anything do that?  We put this question to a panel of top energy and environmental experts:

Will the new EPA standards mean that a meaningfully greater volume of hydrocarbons will stay in the Earth forever? If not, why not? If so, how? Or are we asking too much of some regulations passed in the second-term of a Presidency gummed up by sclerotic politics?

Andrew Revkin, writer of the New York Times’ Dot Earth Blog and Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University

The move by the Obama administration is mostly doing what’s possible, not what’s needed given global emissions trends for carbon dioxide, but is still creditable given the lack of such a step under previous administrations. Will it meaningfully limit how much ancient carbon is liberated before the world transitions fully to a non-polluting energy menu? I’d say no. There’s a lot of mostly wishful talk about the potential impact of the E.P.A. power plant rules on international treaty talks this year and next.

It’s wishful because the real-time imperative of expanding energy access in rapidly developing countries — notably China and India but also those further down the development chain — will for many years to come trump long-term concerns about limiting the greenhouse-gas buildup. And, if anything, these countries are more insistent than ever (see China’s stance discussed here) that the heavy lifting, not marginal Obama-style cuts, needs to be done (or somehow paid for) by the world’s established powers, which built their prosperity on decades of unrestrained coal and oil combustion.

Sharon Burke, Senior Advisor, New America’s International Security Program and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy

The short answer to the question is “to be determined.”  And that’s not just because I don’t actually know the answer or because I’m grim and cynical about the politics, be that as it may. Which leads to the longer answer: one of the intentions of this rule change, as EPA Administrator  Gina McCarthy made clear, is to spur innovation, in energy supplies, efficiency of use, and environmental controls and remediation. That’s not immediate gratification, in any case, but basically, we’d better hope it works!  Also, the furor around the rule, widely expected, is not totally about partisan politics – all energy politics is local!  If you didn’t already know that, you’re getting a good, up-close and personal look at the fact that this is a divisive issue for the Union: Some states are energy producers, some are not, and they all consume different energy differently, depending on anything from local regulations to how cold the winter is. So the “flexibility” McCarthy talked about is practical, but also necessary.

Related: Will renewables ever win the economic energy game?

Russell Gold, Senior Energy Reporter at the Wall Street Journal and Author of The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World

We will stop burning so much coal, oil, and natural gas when something both better and affordable comes along. That’s the nature of an energy transition. New Englanders stopped hunting whales for their blubber when refined petroleum was demonstrated to provide a less expensive and less smoky source of light. We’re in the middle of a slow-moving energy transition from higher- to lower-carbon fuels, from profligate use of energy to greater efficiency.

Will the new EPA standards provide a regulatory signal to the markets for more efficiency and lower-carbon fuels? Yes, absolutely. It might not be a big push, but it’s a push in that direction. When and if the market makes an improvement, it will spread globally. I can’t foresee how long this transition will take, but the EPA standards add fuel, sorry for the pun, to this slow burn.

Steve LeVine, Washington Correspondent, Quartz, and Future Tense Fellow

The subtext in the question it seems to me is not whether the U.S. move alone caps oil consumption, but whether it triggers or becomes part of a trend in that direction. I am with Andy in that there is no indicator in sight of a non-polluting energy future. We will continue pumping gasoline and diesel into our cars and burning coal and natural gas for electricity, as will our children and probably theirs.

But short of a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels, I differ in the direction of events. China is the main actor in future emissions growth. The projected rise in India and the Middle East in the coming quarter-century is large as a percentage, but minuscule in absolute terms compared with China’s gargantuan increase. What is underestimated is the urgency with which China is shifting to lower-emissions gas. Because of China’s actions, along with those of other Asian economies, I think we’ll find in the 2040s that absolute carbon in the atmosphere rose a lot less than projected in 2014.

Dan Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society and Co-Director, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State University

Fossil fuels will stay in the ground only to the extent that something better comes along to do the same job.  That is an innovation problem.  Hydrocarbon taxes and other regulatory incentives may help, but absent appropriate innovation policies they will mostly just deliver more expensive carbon-based energy (as demonstrated by the extraordinary inelasticity of gasoline demand in the face of rapid price increases in the US over the past few years).  Ultimately, any meaningful progress towards keeping carbon in the ground will require continual, long-term technological advance along many, many pathways, from renewables to nukes to carbon capture and sequestration.

About the Author

Fuzz HoganManaging Editor
Fuzz Hogan is managing editor at New America. He spent nearly 20 years at CNN as bureau chief, producer and story editor, and has produced a PBS special on energy innovation.  

Fueling Dominance & The Case for Leisure

New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

This is the final podcast in a series of the best conversations from our annual 10 Big Ideas Conference. First, a discussion about the geopolitics of energy with New America Future Tense Fellow Steve LeVine and Sharon Burke, senior advisor to the International Security Program. The conversation begins with a discussion of Sen. John McCain’s assertion at the conference that Russia was using its energy as a geopolitical weapon. Later, put your feet up and listen to the case for injecting more idleness and leisure into our hectic lives, featuring New America Fellow Brigid Schulte, Liza Mundy, the Director of New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program, Yves Morieux, a senior partner and managing director with the Boston Consulting Group, and Mark Beeman, a Professor of Psychology and Interdepartmental Program in Neurosciences at Northwestern University.

Qatar’s 2022 World Cup Teeters Towards Disaster


For some time now, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 football World Cup has looked to be far more trouble than its worth. Stinging media attacks have been relentlessly pillorying the state and its bid process, putting the country under a magnifying glass like never before. Human rights concerns and corruption issues have been the focus of much of the coverage and many are now questioning whether Qatar will – after all this trouble and difficulty – host the World Cup at all.

Indeed, the 2022 World Cup saga continues with a huge leak of emails to the Sunday Times in the UK, which the paper accompanied with 12,000 words of analysis castigating and criticizing the bid process. The emails printed by the Times do not necessarily reveal anything new in type, just volumes more damaging examples of people involved with the Qatari bid  – mostly Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari former FIFA executive member – acting in…[consults lawyer]…unorthodox ways. Bin Hammam stands accused of, to put it charitably, being exceedingly overly generous to important delegates and other officials throughout the world with financial gifts and expenses. Much of this appears to flout FIFA rules.

The British media-led scrum to attack Qatar is at times neither accurate, with at the very least key names being repeatedly confused, nor edifying; but then again, that’s not what they are there for. They are there to sell copy and Qatar is thoroughly in their crosshairs of late. Indeed, the 2022 World Cup story combines a variety of tempting targets for the British press, tabloid and broadsheet alike: indignant rage, football, rich foreigners, human rights wailing, and glitzy corruption.

For some time now it has been looking like Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 football World Cup has been far more trouble than its worth.

There is, as ever, a certain amount of hypocrisy surrounding this whole situation. The British press were, unsurprisingly, hardly as vociferous in their criticism when England shamelessly courted votes for the World Cup vote by playing friendly matches or wheeling out David Beckham, the former England captain, or Prime Minister David Cameron to woo specific voters. Equally, though, they did not engage in the kinds of mass expenditures that Qatar did to persuade key voters around the world.

Indeed, look at the Qatari bid. A key plinth of the bid was the promise to package up and ship off some of its stadiums to countries in need of stadia post-World Cup. Who decided the recipients of each stadium – and how – is unknown, but what is for sure is that if you are looking for a stadium, only with a successful Qatari bid do you stand a chance of receiving one.

Those in Qatar may well look to the rough ride they are getting and compare that to Russia who won the right to host the 2018 World Cup at the same ceremony as Qatar. Against a backdrop of increasing homophobia, rampant corruption, and energy extortion, Russia nigh-on invaded a sovereign state, annexed a section of that state using – to put it mildly – questionable means, yet in terms of football at least, Russia remains mostly ignored by the press. And, strangely, no one seems to be asking whether their bid was squeaky clean?

Yet understandably suffused with a concentration on Russia’s military shenanigans, the press has leapt over its bid and gone straight to the more salacious story in Qatar. Human rights have been front and center. Report after report has battered Qatar’s reputation and with often good reason. The standards for workers’ rights are simply not good enough. Ironically, this is the positive impact of the World Cup: it is fundamentally an agent of change in the country.

The 2022 World Cup story combines a variety of tempting targets for the British press, tabloid and broadsheet alike: indignant rage, football, rich foreigners, human rights wailing, and glitzy corruption.

In recent weeks the Qatari authorities announced changes and improvements to the scriptures that most trouble workers’ rights in the state. No, these changes are not enough, and their implementation remains to be seen. But this is unequivocally a step forward, and it is purely thanks to the pressure of the World Cup and its negative coverage.

Given a magic wand, I suspect that the new administration in Qatar that took over in summer 2013 would happily swap hosting the 2022 World Cup for an easier life. It has prompted tens of billions of dollars of spending, some of which is necessary (roads and a subway system) but much of which is seen as wasteful (stadiums and foreign consultants). While from the Western perspective, the incremental changes expected in the labor laws in Qatar are a good move, they are seen flatly as a pain and undesirable from the Qatari perspective: they want to retain control. Moreover, the 2022 World Cup is a touchstone issue that encapsulates the direction of travel in Qatar: that of a quasi-westernizing orientation with increasing openness to foreigners and their wanton ways; the perennial refrain being how will Qatar cope with drunk English football fans singing and swaying down the Corniche, the sea-side waterfront?

In lieu of a magic wand, Qatar’s elite will simply have to hunker down and lawyer-up. Whether the 2022 World Cup actually goes ahead is a question for legal professionals and FIFA insiders, not Gulf experts or Qatar’s elite. Qatar’s central concern at the moment is that one of their champions, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s seemingly perennial President, has cooled his support recently, even calling Qatar’s hosting of the tournament a ‘mistake’. The moment that Blatter, who is running again for President (after he said he was not seeking re-election), sees more mileage in throwing Qatar under the bus to further his ambitions, Qatar has a big problem to add to its ever-growing list of 2022 issues.

About the Author

David B. Roberts
Dr. Roberts is a Lecturer at King’s College London. His book Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State will be published in 2014.

A Democracy with a “Partly Free” Media?

It’s hard out here for a journalist. As audiences evaporate, it’s a struggle just to continue the hard and expensive work of keeping government accountable for its actions. Added to that, in many countries, the fractured marketplace has emboldened wealthy investors to meddle in coverage, trying to push a political agenda. Put all this in a conflict zone, with military censors and heightened tension, and you have the perfect storm. All of those dynamics are present in Israel, where the media, which has always been the freest in the Middle East, was still downgraded to “partly free” in a report from Freedom House last year. This year, the media was labeled “free” by Freedom House, but a debate continues over the state of journalism in Israel.

Has Israel’s robust and raucous media, become less aggressive, and potentially less truthful, in the face of all these cross-winds?

Dov AlfonDov Alfon, Editor in Chief, Alaxon Magazine

In a rare neurological condition called Blepharospasm, whose causes are still unclear, the patient suffers from a sustained, forced, involuntary closing of the eyelids. To put it simply, the eyes refuse to see and the patient becomes effectively blind.

One could say that in a mass epidemic whose causes are well known, Israel has contracted the condition. As a country, we are in a state of self blindness. In the darkness surrounding us, there is no “policy towards the Palestinians,” or any other policy for that matter. We are left with one national narrative, the MOPE Syndrome — our policy is that we are the Most Oppressed People Ever.

How can this blindness occur in a country who used to be proud of its “robust and raucous media”?

Yes, there is Ha’aretz, which I led until three years ago. It remains an independent, hard-headed newspaper, but we’re left with it like Jews were left with the Western Wall — a symbolic place for wailing. Ha’aretz is read by less than 5% of the readership. It was never the most read newspaper in Israel, but its growing perception as a radical newspaper farther challenges its ability to influence the public.

By contrast, Israel’s two highest circulated newspapers are connected directly or tacitly to either Netanyahu or his rivals. Sheldon Addelson’s “Israel Hayom” supports Netanyahu, while Yedioth Acharonot supports anyone who stands a chance to weaken Netanyhau – whether they come from the far right, the center or the left.  In fact, the four major media outlets in Israel are either connected directly to political parties or personalities or controlled by powerful business moguls that have significant interests in industries that are highly regulated by government.

So it is not censorship that bugs Israeli press, but self-censorship. In the Israel of today, newspapers bury news, exactly like the stock market buries the economy, religion buries morals and our government buries freedom.


Lisa Goldman, Director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative, New America Foundation

Israelis are news junkies. The Voice of Israel radio reports the news on the hour, every hour, and On Fridays, the cafes are filled with customers sipping cappuccinos as they leaf through the weekend newspaper.

But veteran print newspapers are reeling from the failure of the traditional advertising-based revenue model. Yisrael Hayom, an upstart free daily financed by Sheldon Adelson, has a transparently pro-Netanyahu editorial position and has captured 40 percent of the market.

With the except of Haaretz, which has a small market share, the domestic media provide remarkably little coverage of Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli (Jewish) public has become almost completely indifferent to the Palestinians who live beyond the separation barrier. This tends to surprise foreigners, since the occupation is the primary angle for stories about Israel in the international media.

In Israel, unless there is a suicide bombing, a rocket from Gaza or an attack on a settler, it is almost as though the Palestinians did not exist. Instead, readers lap up stories about domestic political corruption and the religious-secular divide, or about the civil war in Syria. This speaks to a larger systematic failure: the lack of journalistic objectivity and public indifference. For example, readers have not challenged the Government Press Office’s decision to strip Palestinian journalists of their credentials, and Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn’t given an interview in Hebrew in 2 years

In other words, most Israelis—those who primarily obtain their news from the Hebrew media—are detached from the reality in which they live.


Karin Karlekar, Project Director of Freedom of the Press, Freedom House

Media in Israel face multiple challenges. Some, such as the censorship apparatus, restrictions on travel to neighboring countries or territories, and political interference at the public broadcaster, have been in place for a while and are occasionally used to restrict journalists or news content. Others, such as the increasing use in gag orders to restrict coverage of sensitive news or legal cases, and the economic pressure faced by newspapers due to new subsidized entrants into the market, are more recent phenomena.

These factors have all contributed to Israel receiving a numerical score in Freedom House’s annual press freedom index that places it at the very bottom of the “Free” category, and twice in the last 5 years it has slipped to being rated “Partly Free.” However, despite these pressures, I do think that Israeli media have generally retained their level of diversity and aggressive coverage of important news. One can find a range of opinions, and new internet-based news sites and blogs are to some extent filling the gaps created in the traditional media market.

While the trend towards ownership concentration and potential legal restrictions on freedom of expression bear close watching, they have not yet led to dramatic declines in the level of press freedom in Israel. This year, we have once again rated Israel in the “Free” category.


Uri Blau, Investigative reporter, Haaretz

The short and unfortunate answer is yes – and one of the main reasons for it is self-censorship. In an investigative piece I published in 2009, I revealed the shocking images that Israel Defense Force soldiers wear to mark the end of training or field duty. Dead babies, mothers weeping on their children’s graves and a gun aimed at a child were only a few examples of the images they choose. Many international media outlets around the world picked up the story, finding it important, but the comments I received in response to this publication in Israel were very different: “You are just helping our enemies, why did you publish it?” and “Why does the whole world need to know?” were common reactions from friends and fellow journalists. I realized that people expected I would censor myself and would not publish this story as an act of what they consider patriotism.

I had no doubt I should have published that article: News media play a significant role in every lively democracy. Journalists inform the public with tools to understand and evaluate its surrounding and to hold the government and other policy makers accountable. When journalists and editors decide to withhold information they subvert their mission and undermine the basis of the free society. My experiences, however, taught me that many in Israel do not share my view on the essence of our work, resulting in the fact that many newsworthy stories remain untouched.

About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at New America.

Decoding Discrimination in the Digital Age


In 1977, the U.S. agency of Housing and Urban Development audited the real estate industry and discovered that African Americans were shown fewer properties (or told they were unavailable) and treated less courteously than white counterparts. Today, the Information Age has introduced modern discrimination problems that can be harder to trace: From search engines to recommendation platforms, systems that rely on big data could be unlocking new powers of prejudice. But how do we figure out which systems are disadvantaging vulnerable populations – and stop them?

Here’s where it gets tricky: Unlike the mustache-twiddling racists of yore, conspiring to segregate and exploit particular groups, redlining in the Information Age can happen at the hand of well-meaning coders crafting exceedingly complex algorithms. One reason is because algorithms learn from one another and iterate into new forms, making them inscrutable to even the coders responsible for creating them, it’s harder for concerned parties to find the smoking gun of wrongdoing. (Of course, sometimes coders or overseeing institutions are less well-meaning than others – see the examples to come).

So, how do we even begin to unravel the puzzle of data-driven discrimination? By first examining some of its historical roots. A recent Open Technology Institute conference suggested that high-tech, data-driven systems reflect specific, historical beliefs about inequality and how to deal with it. Take welfare in the United States. In the ‘70s, policymakers began floating the idea that they could slash poverty levels by getting individuals off welfare rolls. As part of that process, government computerized welfare case management systems – which would make it easier to track who was eligible to receive benefits and who should be kicked off. Today, these case management systems are even more efficient at determining program eligibility. The upshot? Computerized systems reduce caseloads in an increasingly black box manner. The downside: They do so blindly – kicking out recipients whether or not they’re able to get back on their feet. That’s contributing to greater inequity, not less.

From search engines to recommendation platforms, systems that rely on big data could be unlocking new powers of prejudice.

That’s not all, though. Even when systems are well-designed, it can be “garbage (data) in, discrimination out.” A transportation agency may pledge to open public transit data to inspire the creation of applications like “Next Bus,” which simplify how we plan trips and save time. But poorer localities often lack the resources to produce or share transit data, meaning some neighborhoods become dead zones—places your smart phone won’t tell you to travel to or through, isolating these areas into islands of poverty.

Unfortunately, the implications of flawed data collection may not become apparent for years – after we have made policy decisions about our transit system, for example. Researchers refer to this issue of time as a sort of conditioning problem that arises from several different sources. In one case discussed, discriminatory conditioning happens because of the information itself. Take, for example, genetic information. In the U.S., police can collect DNA from individuals at point of arrest. This information identifies you much in the same way a fingerprint does. But your DNA also links you with others – your family members from generations before, relatives living today, and future generations. While it’s hard to predict how law enforcement or others might use this information in the future, the networked nature of DNA makes it a high-risk candidate for implicating an entire group, and not just an individual.

Related: If you’re poor, don’t expect any privacy online

In other cases, discriminatory conditioning happens because of the pervasiveness of collecting and sharing information, making it hard to control who knows what about you. Most Web pages regularly embed code that communicates to third parties to load an icon, cookie, or advertisement. Try searching for a disease – say AIDS – and click on a top result. Chances are the page will include icons for other applications not connected to the health site. The resulting effect – data leakage – is difficult to avoid: a Web page must communicate information about itself (e.g., “http://www…com/HIV”) to icons so that the site loads correctly. That could be devastating for those who wish to conceal health conditions from data brokers or other third parties that might access and act upon your data profile.

Or consider the case of highly networked environments, where information about what you’re doing in a particular space data gets sucked up, matched and integrated with existing profiles, and analyzed in order to spit back recommendations to you. Whether at home, out shopping, or in public, few people can be invisible. Homes come outfitted with appliances that sense our everyday activities, “speak” to other appliances, and report information to a provider, like an electric utility company. While it’s presumptuous to say that retailers or utility companies are destined to abuse data, there’s a chance that information could be sold down the data supply chain to third parties with grand plans to market predatory products to low-income populations or, worse yet, use data to shape rental terms or housing opportunities. What it boils down to is a lack of meaningful control over where information travels, which makes it more troublesome to intervene if and when a problem arises in the future.

Homes come outfitted with appliances that sense our everyday activities, “speak” to other appliances, and report information to a provider, like an electric utility company.

So what’s possible moving forward? Waiting is definitely not the answer. With collective and personal control, autonomy, and dignity at stake, it would be wrong to leave governments or industry to respond to problems without independent research input. A relatively simple strategy would be to ensure collaboration and coordination between social and computational research. There’s also much to be done in terms of gaining greater access to datasets which various laws otherwise impede (e.g., computer fraud and abuse, intellectual property or trade secrets). Crowdsourcing the discovery of data-driven discrimination is another possibility, where like the HUD audits, users that are similar on all but one trait monitor and report experiences with a variety of automatable systems.

Trying many approaches, and testing them out now may seem like an ambitious agenda, and it is. But in a period of such uncertainty — about how laws, market practices, social norms and practices, or code can safeguard collective and personal dignity, autonomy, and rights — experimentation and iteration is critical to exposing harm or benefit. Only then will we generate stories and evidence rigorous enough to reveal discrimination when it happens.

But for now, that uncertainty can’t get resolved quickly enough as we head into an era of more and more data collection, analysis, and use. There’s a real threat that things are going to go badly, and disproportionately burden the poorest and most marginalized among us. The twin dynamics will only accelerate the divide. Despite the complexity of this task, the time to confront data-driven discrimination is now.

About the Author

Seeta Peña Gangadharan
Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute (OTI). Her research focuses on the nature of digital inclusion, including inclusion in potentially harmful aspects of Internet adoption due to data mining, data profiling, and other facets of online surveillance and privacy.
Samuel Woolley
Sam Woolley is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His current research project looks at the use of political bots--automated bits of code that mimic real users--on social media sites during conflict and security crises worldwide.

Ranking Digital Rights


The hits to our digital freedom and privacy keep coming. Are we ready to take the first steps to stop them?

For the 25th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, LinkedIn blocked mentions of the tragedy for its users in China. Last month, Twitter came under fire from free speech activists for agreeing to censor several tweets in Pakistan at the government’s request.  Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported that “the Syrian opposition is disappearing from Facebook” – and not by choice.

Multinational companies that offer mobile and fixed line Internet service around the world are also coming under fire from human rights groups. Norway’s Telenor is under pressure from Thailand’s new military leaders who just seized power in a coup to help monitor and censor any content that might “lead to unrest.” Human Rights Watch recently questioned the French company, Orange, about its operations in Ethiopia whose government jails bloggers for political critiques.

Clearly, the policies and practices of Internet and telecommunications companies have real impact for the free expression and privacy of people around the world. Are they living up to their responsibilities? Are they doing everything they can to respect the rights of their users? Some companies are trying – to varying degrees. Others are doing little more than P.R. window-dressing. Others are making little or no discernable effort to respect their users’ digital rights.

More: How to escape the data dragnet

As Internet users, or as investors who care about social value as well as financial returns, what should we be asking of these companies? How do we benchmark and compare companies’ policies and practices affecting free expression and privacy?  What should be considered “best practice” in a world where governments are making unreasonable demands of companies, whose staff risk jail or worse in many cases for non-compliance?

The Ranking Digital Rights project is working on answers to those questions. We are developing a methodology for assessing, benchmarking and ultimately ranking the world’s most powerful Internet and telecommunications companies on free expression and privacy criteria. We spent the past year conducting research and consulting with human rights groups, technologists, experts on business and human rights, responsible investors, and many companies themselves. The result is this draft methodology on which we are now inviting public comment until July 7th. After we revise it we will conduct a pilot study later this year. We will then start ranking up to 50 companies in 2015.

Companies are already being measured by investors, universities, NGOs and international organizations on other human rights, social responsibility and sustainability criteria – from conflict minerals to labor practices to carbon disclosure. Many rankings efforts such as the Access to Medicines Index and the Corporate Equality Index have had real impact on corporate practices. Companies like Sustainalytics, are working to meet the growing demand from investors for “environmental, social, and governance” practices of companies. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board recently added freedom of expression and privacy criteria to its recommended SEC reporting standards. These developments give us confidence that if this ranking is done well, we too can have a substantial, measurable impact on the extent to which companies respect and protect Internet users’ rights.

But first, in order to make sure that our methodology is as solid as possible, it is important that we get feedback on our latest draft from experts on digital privacy and freedom of expression, anybody who might want to use our data when it comes out, as well as companies who may be candidates for ranking.

If you think you might be one of those people – or if you just care about these issues and want to weigh in – please click here, read the methodology, and let us know what you think.

About the Author

Rebecca MacKinnonDirector, Ranking Digital Rights
Rebecca MacKinnon directs the Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Foundation. Author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, she is co-founder of the citizen media network Global Voices Online and a former CNN bureau chief and correspondent in Beijing and Tokyo.

The Power of a Picture

Data visualization can make a point, but what if it could help make decisions? What if policymakers and parents had the tools to visualize child school performance data in the context of the neighborhoods in which they live? Thanks to the open data champions at DataKind, an organization that organizes special data events that join social conscious web developers with nonprofits in need, we’re doing just that. (I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of this project, working with D.C. Action for Children).

The group has recently released its Data Tools 2.0 project, an initiative to visualize student outcomes amid datasets of child health and wellbeing, neighborhood assets, and violent crimes. The tool shows in stark contrast the great inequities in the District of Columbia. For example, in the narratives D.C. Action for Children chose to highlight above, it’s clear that students hailing from neighborhoods with high poverty and single mother families also register the lowest scores in standardized tests in math and reading. Perhaps the debate on how to improve student outcomes should center on the neighborhood assets where poor-performing students live? That’s the core of the message of Data Tools 2.0. Lindsey Tepe with our Education Policy Program also posted a blog to EdCentral on the insights brought forth by the updated data tools.

After the successful launch of Data Tools 2012, we decided to tack very strongly in the direction of open data. Thanks to some amazing volunteers support, the Data Tools 2.0 features automated data collection and open source visualization of dozens of D.C. data layers. You can view a sampling above and see the full presentation here.

All the data is open, so feel free to dive into it yourself and make your own conclusions. The source code is even available on GitHub, so nonprofits and organizations from across the country can take the tool and hopefully apply it to their own cities.

About the Author

Nick McClellanWeb Production Manager
Nick is a production manager of NewAmerica.org, and produces multimedia and infographics for the Weekly Wonk. He has worked with Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. and volunteered with DataKind.

Yes He Can

The Shot (n): An image that speaks.

In this image, crowds of Syrian civil war refugees and expatriates clog the streets of Lebanon to  begin voting in advance of Syria’s June 3 presidential election. The scene sends a perplexing message about the enduring power of embattled Syrian President, explains Mohamad Najem, a New America Fellow and founder of Social Media Exchange.

More: Can women unlock Syria’s stalemate?

About the Author

Mohamad Najem
Mohamad Najem is the founder of SMEX (Social Media Exchange) and a New America Adjunct Fellow.