Why you need to read The Outlaw Ocean

This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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This post was updated on July 30, 2015.
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This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.

Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.

If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.

Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.

According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.

Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.

These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.

“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”

But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:

Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.

But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:

While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.

And:

While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.

Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments.  Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.

In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.

This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.


Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site

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The irreplaceable David Carr, dead at 58

In a terrible week for journalism, The New York Times has confirmed David Carr, the newspaper’s media critic, has died

Amid a terrible week for journalism, The New York Times has confirmed David Carr, the newspaper’s media critic, has died. Carr was a critical voice in the journalism landscape, one that cut across medium and media offering candid, and sometimes harsh, takes on the latest, greatest and worst that our discipline generates. While the details of his death have not been confirmed, one fact is known: David Carr collapsed in The New York Times newsroom before being rushed to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. For the many readers who awaited his byline each week, it is small consolation to know he left us doing what he (and we) loved most.

One journalist’s take on another’s folly: The Jonah Lehrer Conundrum

A writer’s integrity serves as both flak jacket and silver bullet. Without it, what’s left?

It can sometimes be a fine line. Bob Dylan has this great line when someone asked him where his songs come from, he said they begin with “acts of love.” You fall in love, and then you steal it … you make it your own, you reinvent it. You, in a sense, misremember it, and that’s an important part of creativity. Which is why it’s so important to create a culture where people can liberally borrow from the ideas of others.  – Jonah Lehrer on The Colbert Show (April 17, 2012)

I’ve read them all. Every one. Forbes. Poytner. The New York Times. Global Post. I’ve even read the personal statement issued by Lehrer’s publishing house, Houton Mifflin Harcourt. The die is cast. Lehrer is done.

Ok. Perhaps not finished, but certainly scarred. After all, a writer’s integrity serves as both flak jacket and silver bullet in this industry. Even the suggestion of falsity in journalist circles can undo a personality, upset a career and upend a reputation.

At 31-years-old, the recently anointed New Yorker staff writer had already published three books, penned innumerable long-form articles published everywhere from Wired to the Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine to The New Yorker. He was, at such a young age, a literary treat: weaving the most rigid of facts into the smoothest of manuscripts. Lehrer, to many —and for lack of a better comparison—  the Michael Lewis of science writers, extolling the wonders unseen to an audience unread. And he was, in the end, too good to be true.

One has to wonder why such a talented writer would opt for convenience over conscience —risk a career over a few re-constructed, misconstrued or fabricated quotes. In part, I have to believe that it was driven by the aesthetic —the desire to hammer home one’s point most eloquent and with impact: the want to, as he argues in his own book, streamline and recombine the ideas of old to make something new again.

But his miscarriage of trust can’t be overlooked, not if his audience demands both the authentic and the intelligent. If a journalist is a painter responsible to facts un-glossed, then the aesthetic provides no respite. And neither should his readers.

Most unfortunate for us, his audience, is the mere introduction of suspicion: the soon-rotten seed of doubt which will (and should) lead many to cast critical eyes on Lehrer’s body of work. For those who value the trade, we can only hopeful that —as his parting words suggest— “the lies are now over.” But even a sinking ship, patched and repaired, might still rot if the water is not bailed out.

Lehrer would certainly be wise to come forward now if additional professional ulcers exist Confessions, before the accusations, are usually preferable to the scrutiny of public opinion when that public feels duped. But Lehrer might also chime in on what forces (internal or external) led him to make such compromises in an otherwise charmed early career.

Certainly (as a writer and journalist myself) I recognize the strains created by a professional life reliant on the witty or alluring combination of 26 letters, but the nature of his responsibility (mostly for long form, ostensibly original magazine material) was not subject to the same break-neck, second-counting pace of daily news, even though that, too, would be little excuse.

In a fitting coincidence, an article (by David Carr) on the necessity for journalists to take stock of their work (to hold themselves to account more thoroughly) was inked the same day  —prior to the announcement. In that piece, Carr notes that “the reason the public has lost confidence in our product [journalism] is that it sometimes does not merit it.”

While Lehrer’s revelation will only diminish the public’s trust, the saddest coda to this story is that Lehrer could have avoided his mistake if he’d only read his now-tarnished book:

When stuck, out of ideas, or when the answer appears far from reachable, Lehrer argues that time to reflect calmly —the antithesis of stubborn or panicked folly [or in this case, the use of inappropriate and damaging shortcuts]— can be the creative type’s greatest asset. A moment of respite refreshes the brain, provides space to think, and the solution —creative at its core— is more apt to reveal itself.

Perhaps Lehrer should have re-read that section one more time. His readers —current and former— expected it of him.

A Night Talking Terrorists

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

Eric Schmitt’s signature graces the inside cover of Counterstrike, a 2011 publication with New York Times colleague Thom Shanker.

“We need to be lucky and good everyday,” said Thom Shanker, a reporter for the New York Times. Even though the United States hasn’t had a terrorist attack in 10 years, doesn’t mean we’ll be safe forever.

Mr. Shanker and co-author Eric Schmitt, also from the New York Times’ Washington bureau, discussed their book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Midtown Manhattan on Monday September 12, 2011 – one day removed from the 10th anniversary memorial ceremony of the Sept. 11 attack.

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

While the book contains insider notes on the workings and workers of the American intelligence and security community, it also paints a stark picture of U.S. preparedness on September 11.

“There were people in the Pentagon who were asking ‘al Who’?” said Mr. Shanker, who was shocked that state officials were unaware of  Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack. This fact is made worse given that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker also discussed the propensity for President George Bush’s “capture of kill” anti-terrorism strategy to feed Al Qaeda recruiting networks, citing concerns expressed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the US approach was increasing, not reducing, the ranks in terrorist organizations.

In response, the authors argued that a new deterrence strategy took form in 2003-2004 which focused on attacking what terrorists hold dear – issues of reputation, financial restitution and the security of terrorist networks.

To deter terrorists Shanker and Schmitt said that the new strategy demanded spreading responsibility across the government more broadly, while simultaneously stressing inter-operabililty between intelligence (and I.T.) frameworks, transparency amongst government branches and cooperation between sectors of the national security apparatus – most noticeably the CIA and the FBI.

The night’s more animated conversation and debate surrounded warrantless wire-tapping which prompted questions on liberty and security. However, this line of questioning led the Timesmen to recite persuasive evasions, instead of measured answers.

However, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker did highlight technology as both a progenitor and salve of modern terrorism.

“The Internet is the ultimate safe haven for terrorism,” said Mr. Schmitt, as websites or forums provide the space for extremists to indoctrinate others, while the Internet’s online gaming communities, replete with its anonymous and atomized user experience,  are penetrated by terrorists transmitting coded information without detection.

The Internet also provides an opportunity for law enforcement to lay in wait for extremists to expose themselves, leading to identification and potential capture.

In writing this book, Mr. Shanker and Mr. Schmitt said they intended bring the challenges of anti-terrorism policy and practice into relief. It isn’t easy to quell the fires of extremism, but Mr. Schmitt admits that it is possible over time.

One method is attacking the narrative used by terrorist organizations.

As terrorism derives its strength from others sympathetic to their cause, this support is a function of controlling the narrative, (i.e. the way actors’ roles are understood in the world),

“The United States struggles with the ‘say-do’ gap,” said Mr. Shanker. By this, Mr. Shanker means that regardless of national security concerns which necessitate the presence of American troops abroad, their deployment – almost exclusively – in regions like Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya makes them vulnerable to Al Qaeda’s argument: the West has waged war against Islam.

“The American narrative is hard to defend,” said Mr. Shanker.

Finally, as the discussion opened up to audience questions, Mr. Shanker’s expertise on the Washingston/Pentagon beat was put to use in the discussion of new Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta.

Mr. Shanker reminded the audience that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was selected to deal with Iraq, and stayed on to handle Afghanistan. Mr. Panetta, however, will have to wage war with the budget, said Mr. Shanker.

As economic trends have the potential to erode U.S. capacity fight terrorism, the question becomes, “how much security do you want to pay for?” said Mr. Shanker

In the night’s final response, the Times’ reporters took delicate jabs at the state of  U.S. politics.

“Washington can’t take two big ideas at the same time,” said Mr. Schmitt.

Unfortunately, and as Counterstrike demonstrates, the ‘big ideas’ do not have simple solutions. Particularly when national security is the subject of debate.