Wonks agree: F-22 Raptor an outmoded waste

Looks like I’m not alone in calling out Mark Bowden for his feature touting the F-22 Raptor in the March issue of the Atlantic. Not long after, Slate’s Fred Kaplan was on it, taking Raptor boosters to task in general, but finding time to address Bowden’s article in particular.

It’s the most sophisticated argument I’ve read, but even he evades the main issues. He ignores the F-15’s AESA radar. He says nothing about the F-35, a lower-cost stealth fighter about to enter production. (It has problems, too, but if someone thinks more stealth planes are needed, the F-35 has about 75 percent of the F-22’s capabilities for about half the price.) Finally, in response to one blogger’s critique of his article, Bowden admits that, even in a war against a more sophisticated foe, we would still establish aerial dominance “with the current fleet of F-15s backed by a few F-22s”—187 F-22s are “a few”?

All this, even in spite of Kaplan’s own ode to another outmoded aircraft designed to face the now nonexistent Soviet threat. That even he sees through the hype is telling. He sinks Bowden’s other arguments quite well, too — especially involving the Cope India air exercises, which Bowden used to illustrate the waning dominance of US fourth-generation fighter jets. And Sam Roggeven, editor of the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s blog The Interpreter has doubts of his own.

I felt more than a little irresponsible suggesting Bowden is part of Lockheed-Martin’s massive astroturf PR effort to save the Raptor program, but I take some comfort in knowing ThinkProgress’s Matt Duss has the same reading of the situation. To the Atlantic’s credit, they may have run Bowden’s cherry-picked cheerleading without nearly the degree of critical editing it deserved, but they haven’t silenced dissent within the ranks. James Fallows has a great response with a lot of evidence that the Raptor isn’t everything its backers make it to be.…

FBI whistleblower’s experience boosts new call for forensic reform

The National Academy of Sciences is calling for an overhaul of forensic investigation and the role it plays in fighting crime. The New York Times has a good overview. Most compelling is the call for national standards for forensic investigation and removing forensic lab work from police departments and investigative agencies, to ensure independence. It’s a worthy goal.

I spoke with former FBI forensic investigator Frederic Whitehurst years ago for a paper in college. Whitehurst, executive director of the Forensic Justice Project, part of the National Whistleblowers Center, blew the whistle numerous times on sloppy FBI forensic work — at one point, proving that FBI methods were quite literally inadequate to tell explosives from piss in a bottle. He told me that, like in any job, there was pressure to deliver results — especially if they reinforced what FBI investigators wanted to hear. The pressure to please and a lack of scientific rigor led to what he saw as faulty results in a number of high profile cases, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the UNABOM investigation, and the OJ Simpson murder case.

Most notably, he argued an explosive device intended for George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993 was not similar to devices previously confirmed to be built by Iraqi Intelligence Service. The implication was that Iraq was not behind the assassination attempt at all. The bombs’ alleged similarity was the grounds on which the FBI tied the IIS to the bomb and Whitehurst contended that it was the misrepresentation of his findings that led to President Clinton’s retaliatory missile strike on Iraq.

While the Department of Justice came to the conclusion that the FBI forensic labs needed a procedural overhaul, they denied Whitehurst’s suggestions that their findings were flawed. Whitehurst himself was transferred to the less prestigious paint analysis unit for his trouble.

The DOJ maintains an archive of their investigations into Whitehurst’s many allegations of FBI wrongdoing and lack of scientific rigor here. It’s great reading. It’s also all the evidence you need to side with the National Academy of Sciences. Even if Whitehurst were a lone crank (and his continued advocacy suggests otherwise,) he paints an all-too-plausible picture of what can go wrong when forensic science is tied too closely to the aims of crimefighters.…

The Atlantic’s transparent Raptor puff-piece — Have they been bought off?

The cover of the March issue of the Atlantic invites readers with a spooky item across the top: “Marc Bowden: Why U.S. fighter jocks are losing their edge.” The 12-page feature it refers to, “The Last Ace,” also figures big in the table of contents, laid across a full-page photo of a masked fighter jock.

In it, Bowden speaks with Cesar Rodriguez, a former F-15 pilot in the Air Force, and the man with the distinction of the most air-to-air kills of any American pilot today: three. As Bowden points out, the number is illustrative of the nature of air combat and America’s air superiority. Bowden neglects another reason, which we’ll come back to.

Rodriguez shares his war stories with Bowden, who also speaks with several Air Force officers, including the now-deceased Gen. Thomas Tinsley, to get a picture of modern air combat, as well as its history and future. Footage from the interviews was cut into this video, produced by the Atlantic.

If it comes off like Tom Clancy technofetishism, that’s because it is. The thrust of Bowden’s feature is to push for continued production and wider use of the F-22 Raptor, Lockheed-Martin’s next-generation fighter craft slated to replace the F-15. The Raptor faces a meeting with the chopping block in early March when president Obama will decide whether to order 20 more. As the Washington Post noted, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is against the expense, particularly since the United States will be ordering thousands of Lockheed’s cheaper F-35s. The Atlantic neglects to mention the F-35 at all.

The image Bowden creates is that of an ancient, decaying Air Force, rivaled by rusty chopshop MiGs fielded by second-world governments. He suggests American pilots, holding together rickety air-jalopies (with price tags in the tens of millions,) must remain relevant in the Cold War paradigm the rest of the military has left behind.

It was fashionable in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union to argue that the threat of conventional warfare was no longer relevant, because no other nation could complete with the United States on conventional terms. The attacks of September 11, 20001, underlined that argument. … [B]ut that doesn’t mean the old threats have disappeared. Russia’s incursion into Georgia and threatening gestures against the Baltic states; Iran’s persistence in pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; North Korea’s decision to ignore its agreement to cease building nuclear weapons — all are reminders that the threat posted by belligerent nation-states is real.
Here, Bowden undercuts himself. On the occasions that the US has taken action directly against another nation-state after WW2, the majority have been too poor to field a modern military. It is increasingly the case, and at least as big a contributor if not a much bigger one, to the small number of dogfights and American fighter pilots’ tiny kill counts. And if we do find ourselves in a shooting war with a nuclear power, we have much bigger problems. The very reason hostile nations pursue nuclear weapons, after all, is for security from conventional warfare. No amount of F-22s will make America nuke-proof.

The facts distorted and omitted by Bowden aren’t obscure trivia for the defense policy set. They are simple and apparent — enough so that Bowden, or certainly his editors, should have questioned them. Why didn’t they?

Let’s go back to Cesar Rodriguez. In the last quarter-page of “The Last Ace,” the last two percent of Bowden’s 12-page paean to the F-22, we get a hint of what’s going on.

After 26 years of flying, Rodriguez is no longer in the fight. Pushing 50, he now works for Raytheon. One of his responsibilities is to sell the AMRAAM, an assignment that puts to good use the story of his killer sortie over Pristina, when he lit up the snowy night with that MiG.…

Denver newspaper war: Endgame

It’s been more than two months since Scripps announced that its Denver paper, the Rocky Mountain News, was up for sale and two to four weeks past the mark they said it would close if they failed to find a buyer.

I talked earlier about the likelihood that Scripps and rival Denver Post owner MediaNews were staring each other down, each losing more than $1 million every month in hopes that the other would blink, close up, and leave an entire city’s readership to the victor. Later that day, the Denver Business Journal voiced the same suspicions. But the entirety of industry speculation is based on a very small amount of publicly available information; Scripps and the Rocky are largely mum, looking to avoid violating their Justice Department-approved joint operating agreement with the Post, and MediaNews is a private company that plays its hand close to the chest.

But a little extra context and a new development may shed some light on what’s taking place behind the scenes. Not long after the Rocky went up on the auction block, Shawn White Wolf of White Wolf Media announced he and his investment partners would prepare a bid for the beleaguered newspaper.

Since the December announcement, there has been no news about White Wolf until recently, when his company announced they would be setting up media training offices in Denver. They’ve remained publicly silent on a bid, but clearly something has inspired Scripps to keep the money-pit paper open longer than planned.

If you’ve paid attention to the drama, though, you know that MediaNews owner and Denver Post publisher Dean Singleton has right of refusal on any purchase. Under conditions of the joint operating agreement, he needs only to match an outside bid, not beat it. At that point, MediaNews would fold the Rocky, acquire the remaining half of the Denver Newspaper Agency (DNA), which handles advertising and publishing of both papers, and hope being the only paper in town will allow the Post to stave off collapse long enough to become profitable again.

Here are the ways things can play out for MediaNews, from most to least preferred:

1) Scripps receives no bids. They shut the paper down, ending Denver’s newspaper war and allowing the Post to expand its readership to the rest of the city. MediaNews acquires  the DNA, its building and its presses on the cheap.
2) Scripps receives a bid, which MediaNews agrees to match. The prospective buyer recognizes shutting down the Rocky is worth more to MediaNews than they are willing to pay to acquire a hole in the ground into which they can shovel money a newspaper caught in the middle of both an industry-wide crisis and a city newspaper war. No further bids are made and MediaNews acquires and shuts down the Rocky.
3) Scripps receives a bid too high to consider matching — a bid high enough that it would be foolish to match it, given the reward, whihc is that the Post continues to run and lose money until it switches to a profitable business model some time in the indeterminate future.

MediaNews will do everything it can to avoid the third scenario. To the Post, new Rocky ownership and continued competition pose an existential threat. So it’s not surprising to see MediaNews, in story after story, maintain their finances are better than they look on paper, despite their credit’s downgrade to junk status long ago, and its steady sinking toward default. (Scripps remains investment-grade.) It’s all pretty suspect, of course. At a time when, more than anything, MediaNews needs some cash to prop it up to weather a fundamental reshaping of the news industry, they’d release any information they had if it would counter the dim credit assessments.

MediaNews is  bluffing. They’re hoping an aggressive posture will send two messages: First, that they are prepared (and, in fact, can afford) to match any reasonable bid, which will make buying the Rocky prohibitively expensive; and second, that any potential buyer will find themselves in a newspaper war that the Post will be able to wait out for years.

The first, with some limitations, is probably true. The second is a joke. One Denver paper will almost surely close its doors this year. That paper will be the Post if investors come in with enough capital and the will to prop up the Rocky for a few years.

The wild card in this is still the Justice Department, and it represents, for MediaNews, an unpredictable but absolutely worst-case scenario. If the Justice Department (in charge of the labyrinthine legal complexities of newspaper joint operating agreements) finds that there’s truth in Scripps’ accusations that the Post funneled $13 million from the DNA to make payroll, they may find MediaNews in violation of the JOA, giving Scripps anything from the freedom to sell without Singleton’s right of refusal to imposing fines big enough snuff the Post and give the Rocky the chance to buy up the wreckage of the DNA — a complete reversal of fortune from how MediaNews is hoping to see this play out.

It’s a fascinating story, and a damn shame that when this is all said and done, we’re probably not going to learn about all the intrigue going on behind closed doors.…

Joe Biden: Internet sex symbol (apparently)

There’s a lot of things not to like about vice president Joe Biden. Drug warrior, author the RAVE Act, myopic and one-sided on the issue of Israel and Palestine, close buddy of the credit industry — he’s not a perfect match with the progressive ideal.

But he is, Israel policy notwithstanding, generally a pragmatic internationalist as well as a lifelong ally of organized labor. He’s also got a gift for looking badass at least once a day — a fact not lost on the internet.

Biden Daily is a LiveJournal photo community watched by several hundred with a daily flood of pictures of Joe Biden doing what Joe Biden does best: being awesome. So long as your duties are largely ceremonial, who better than Joe Biden to do them, anyway? Entries and comments in the community seem to trend from the harmless toward the strangely fangirlish, though. Especially popular is Biden’s, erm…, open body language (one commenter called him “the Santa Claus of boners.”)

Elsewhere, an online community has Biden in the final running for “Hottest Overall Hot Guy,” after securing the “Hottest Old Guy” honors. Thanks to a rush of Biden boosters, he’s beating leading men from Shia LeBeouf to Paul Newman — in a landslide, no less.

It’s not all that surprising, I guess, given how Biden killed it with the ladies during dial tests in the campaign.  Uncommitted women loved Biden and loathed Sarah Palin during the vice presidential debates. This wasn’t just a reaction against Palin. Long before she came onto the national scene, women rocketed Biden from sixth to first place in dial-test ratings at the debates in New Hampshire.

There’s no indication, of course, that these dial-testers responded for the same reasons as the women of Biden Daily. Maybe they just liked Biden’s characteristic candor in the debates.

What’s behind it? I couldn’t begin to guess, so I asked the women of Biden Daily. Here’s some of their responses:

● He comes off as confident and self-assured without being arrogant and that comes across even in pictures. … My mother nearly died when I was talking about how sexy Joey B. is (I’m 23 BTW)

● A lot of the appeal for me is his confidence, intelligence, and sense of humor which are three of the things I look for in a possible boyfriend.● I just want to take a bite out of Joey the Shark. That’s really all there is to it.● Biden … gives off a rather unusual blue-collar masculinity–he’s got this sensitive/”mamma’s boy”/not-afraid-to-cry-in-front-of-you streak to him … you can simultaneously imagine him chopping his own firewood one minute, and moved to tears over a tragic story the next. That he’s both ‘manly’ and ’sensitive’, etc.● [H]e seems like a happy, confident, genuine, funny, decent guy. the kind of man i’d want as a spouse or a father● I fell in love with Joe during the VP debate. My gawd, everytime he flashed those pearly whites, I melted a little inside.● I thought he was hot from the moment I saw him (that whole silver fox/blue eyes thing–the ladies here turned me on to his yummy strong arms later). But it took reading up on him and listening to things he’s said to really fall for him.

Does all that nice guy stuff make sense of the internet’s veep-ogling? Does it explain Biden’s high ratings with women during the debates? It’s hard to say just what factors are at work here. I suppose as unlikely sex symbols go, though, we’ve done much, much worse.…

The future of the post-paper written word

Everyone makes mistakes, but I’ve made three predictions in my lifetime that have proven to be so incredibly wrong that, were I a captain of industry,they would have cost billions:
1)  Titanic would, despite its zillion-dollar budget, make a very modest box office showing.
2)  If hometown band The Fray failed to release a sophomore album within two or three years of their first big buzz, they would be forgotten.
3)  There will always be a market for print media.

That last one is particularly embarassing, as I made the pronouncement days after my paymasters put The Rocky Mountain News on the auction block. There’s audacity, and then there’s just not giving a fuck about all observable evidence.

In my defense, I was (and am) all too aware that print’s business model is in shambles, and that the Web is toppling giants every day. But the core reasoning is sound: Print, however primitive, is a superior reading experience. The same case was made by Time editor-at-large Josh Quittner in his piece The Race for a Better Read.

How right is Quittner? Right enough that I shelled out $5 for a tissue-thin copy of Time, knowing full well that I could  read it online for free. His piece works in tandem with managing editor Walter Isaacson’s How to Save Your Newspaper to form a two-part argument: newspapers can become profitable again by adopting an easy-to-use, inexpensive micropayment system, and this system will catch on because of a new generation of e-readers that, increasingly, will be able to deliver an experience to rival paper. (The latter is also a point Jonathan Hamilton made when he pretty swiftly shut down my argument that print’s superiority meant it could survive the march of technological progress.)

What Quittner and Isaacson don’t address is who will thrive and who will fall in the epoch of e-readers. Chastened from the last round of terribly bad prognosticating, I offer some more modest estimations:

Local papers, as we understand them, will be more or less over. Actual community newspapers, who do the hard, inglorious and, frankly, boring work of attending city council meetings and Rotary Club to-dos ought to preserve their niche, but your local midsize city paper, larded up with syndicated columnists and AP wire stories, will continue to hemorrhage money. These papers, once able to make a living on homogenized national news content by being the only ones in the area to distribute it, should already be making efforts to switch to a model built specifically on local and regional news. The good thing about such a model is that while, in print, it would mean a suicidal shrink in ad space, it could become vital, profitable content in the micropayment model, since it’s unlikely to be duplicated for free all across the Web.

Good news for fans of investigative journalism. As Isaacson points out, a micropayment system is a strong incentive for journalists to produce content that people will actually read. Serious news outlets will have a choice: produce valuable, unique content, or lose out to the outlets who do. Now, there would be a disincentive to waste too much time and effort duplicating the same man-bites-dog story available everywhere and to focus on the strengths of the written word — investigative journalism, thoughtful analysis and informative journalism.

The end of ‘objectivity.’ (Here I go again with the dangerous pronouncements.)  A news model built on micropyaments and local/regional papers getting out of the national political game both contribute to the same end result: People will consume less content that runs contrary to their world view. Read letters to the editor from any mid-size city paper and, day in and day out, you’re likely to find someone with a partisan axe to grind — someone who takes issue with their local paper’s intolerable editorial slant. In the physical newspaper paradigm, they’re stuck with these papers only because the angry man in Ohio can’t get home delivery of the more agreeable paper in Michigan. When the era of e-readers finishes knocking down this barrier to equal worldwide reach and local papers increasingly get out of the business of national politics, the tendency of readers to flock to outlets that reflect their beliefs (already apparent in the success of Huffington Post, Free Republic and other partisan sites) will only be amplified. And while readers might have taken the time to read opposing opinions in their local papers just to have something to feel incensed over, it’s not likely that many will be willing to pay for the luxury.

Is that a bad thing? That’s hard to say. It’s hard to find something to like about the public withdrawing to their own ideological echo chambers, but it’s not unprecedented. In the time of Lincoln, for example, newspapers were up front about their biases and made no apologies for being the standard-bearers of their respective parties. Partisans picked their papers accordingly, and discerning consumers of news would read competing papers for a fuller worldview.

On one hand, we risk further undermining consensus reality (which is already in a pretty bad way.)On the other hand, the contemporary notion of unbiased coverage substitutes real objectivity for an ideological balance, facts be damned. Can further self-segregating our news consumption wreck consensus reality any worse than a newspaper suggesting, say, that one senator’s belief in unicorns constitutes a controversy and unsettled debate over their existence? That’s a question that, for all the liberties I’ve taken here, I’m still not qualified to answer. It’s one we’re going to have to ask ourselves as we go through the growing pains of journalism.…