Tag Archives: WikiLeaks

The government wins big in the Manning case. And the rest of us?

All in all, it’s hard to see how the trial of Private Bradley Manning could have ended any better for the U.S. government.

For starters, Manning was convicted, not that the verdict was ever in doubt, with President Obama declaring “he broke the law” even before the trial opened, the president apparently having skipped the class at Harvard Law where the presumption of innocence was covered. Still, even though it was a foregone conclusion, the guilty verdict meant that the government’s three-year enterprise of pursuing, jailing, tormenting, and finally prosecuting the hapless soldier for leaking military and diplomatic files, more than half of them not classified at all, gets at least a light dusting of vindication.

Not only vindication, but fairness too. The military judge herself gagged on the charge that Manning had aided the enemy – a count that would have made his leaks to the news media no different from a sale of troop deployment data to the Taliban. The judge’s rejection of the aiding-the-enemy charge was applauded as evidence of wisdom and restraint, rather than an implicit repudiation of the whole point of the case. If enemies didn’t benefit, why should we treat the leaks as anything more than a momentary bureaucratic embarrassment? Why on earth did the prosecution demand 60 years behind bars?

The news media—the only entities that unquestionably benefited from the leaks—helped keep the idea alive that something momentous, even transformative, was at stake. Without doing any actual reporting to determine how much the 700,000 documents Manning channeled to Wikileaks actually mattered, the media insisted his actions were a grave offense. The New York Times, which to its credit denounced editorially the severity of the sentence, in its news columns still referred to his actions, breathlessly, as “a gigantic leak that lifted the veil on American military and diplomatic activities around the world.” It did?

Then Manning himself relieved the government of any obligation to show that his actions actually did any harm when he appealed for compassion during the sentencing phase of his trial, referring to evils that were never introduced into evidence or documented in press accounts. “I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I ‘m sorry that they hurt the United States,” he said. “I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.”

Finally, facing 35 years in prison, Manning announced he wanted henceforth to be known as Chelsea, not Bradley, and intended to live the rest of his, or now her, life as the woman she had always been. She would seek whatever hormonal and surgical interventions that might require. Catnip to the media, and various news outfits squandered barrels of digital ink figuring out whether Manning would get the medical help she sought, and exploring the grammatical rules that should govern references to her gender.

For the government, it was just too good to be true. This idealistic young soldier, outraged by the deceit and wrongdoing he discovered, says he’s sorry for having wanted to make these wrongs publicly known, admits doing incalculable harm – though without evidence of any–and allows actions that others regarded as heroic to be redefined as the byproduct of psychosexual dysfunction.

The full range of realities that Manning’s leaks brought to light has yet to be inventoried, and only a fraction of them have been made public. The Guardian, Continue reading

Media heroism turned on its head: The real Manning scandal

In media mythology, the years from the mid-‘60s to the mid-’70s were the classical age, a heroic time of moral clarity.

Mainstream journalism marinated in adversarialism. Little Southern newspapers infuriated their own readers by staring down segregation. Foreign correspondents forced upon an unwilling public the realities of a brutal war. Network news ignored official disdain and showed the bottomless suffering the war inflicted on the innocents it was supposed to save. With the Pentagon Papers, newspapers defied secrecy rules to expose government lies. With Watergate, reporters forced out a corrupt president.

True, that retelling is a bit of myth-spinning; the media never were quite that gutsy. But myths illuminate. They remind us of values and aspirations. What we’d like to think was true then reflects what we hope might still be true now.

And over the past decade or so, it’s as if that classical formula of defiance and struggle has been turned upside down. Instead of halting war, the news media helped lead the charge into battle, stoking jingoism and spreading half-truths. Instead of unmasking civilian suffering, the media have kept the thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan war dead off-screen, pandering to the idea that the only victims worth compassion wear U.S. uniforms.

Even Watergate is upended, with Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the scandal, now the target of scathing revisionism because of a trivial dustup with a thin-skinned White House.

And looming above those breathtaking role reversals is the media’s disgraceful abandonment of the boldest news source of his generation, Pvt. Bradley Manning, a soldier who in 2010 defied secrecy restrictions to feed the most influential media in the world with leaks they gratefully published, which exposed corruption and duplicity, identified torturers, energized the Arab spring, and embarrassed officialdom worldwide.

The ferocity of the Obama administration attack on Manning and on Wikileaks, the online Continue reading

Assange and Wikileaks: Time to Ask the Impertinent Questions

I’m badly out of step with my media brethren, since I find the fate of Wikileaks and its besieged founder, Julian Assange, a truly compelling story. Other media don’t agree. The pressure on Assange, who has taken sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, is to them fringe stuff, a quirky faceoff involving a spectral, white-haired weirdo most journalists disdain, who spilled secrets that annoyed officialdom and which U.S. media mostly ignored anyway.

True, the story’s got sex, since Sweden wants Assange extradited to answer complaints of bedroom wrongdoing in Stockholm. But even sex can’t give it the boost it needs, and Wikileaks gets nowhere near the attention lavished, for instance, on the imbecilic U.S. Senate candidate from Missouri who believes women have an inbuilt capacity to keep from being impregnated by rapists.

I think the real Wikileaks story is a very big deal and has been preposterously underplayed and under-reported by the U.S. media. Wikileaks, the global anti-secrecy network Assange founded, exploded into the headlines worldwide in 2010. It had been aggressively posting documents from foreign governments and private entities—exposing corruption in Kenya, tax avoidance by a British bank, toxic waste in West Africa, internal Scientology documents.

But Wikileaks became world famous in April 2010 when its leaks involved the United States. First was the release of gunsight video showing a U.S. helicopter massacring people on a Baghdad street, among them civilians, Reuters journalists and a child. That was followed by war logs first from Iraq, then from Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. military documents, and by a third trove—U.S. diplomatic cables, more than 250,000, covering some 100 countries, published by a makeshift cooperative of four leading news organizations.

It was the most stupendous assault ever on official secrecy.

The counterattack has been steady and effective. The U.S. arrested an Army Continue reading

Out-sourcing the job of muzzling the media

A comment posted to London’s Guardian newspaper said it best: “Censorship, like everything else in the West, has been privatized.”  The writer, somebody called “edensasp,” was referring to news that Wikileaks—the online whistleblower that has been embarrassing governments and corporations worldwide by disclosing their secrets–was suspending operations.

Why? Had its leader, the mercurial Julian Assange, been indicted? Had the black choppers swooped in and taken him out? No, nothing that cinematic. It was the bankers. A handful of big money handlers decided they wouldn’t process donations to Wikileaks, it had exhausted its reserves, and it was going broke.

The fund cutoff started in December 2010. That’s when Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, Amazon and Bank of America discovered their patriotic duty.

At the time, five of the world’s top news organizations—The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel—had begun publishing articles based on a remarkable trove of U.S. State Department cables shared with them by Wikileaks. The organizations had spent months sifting from among the documents, eliminating those they thought might cause needless harm. They then launched a barrage of articles derived from candid reports from U.S. diplomats that exposed official lies, both our country’s and dozens of others’.

But official lies have their supporters too, and there was a huge fuss. Because the secret cables were American—even if the people whom the secrecy protected often were not—U.S. politicians led the charge against Wikileaks. Assange was denounced as “a high-tech terrorist,” law-makers demanded his head, and Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal investigation of his operation.

And so the money-handlers were stirred to action. Within days Wikileaks was under a financial stranglehold, and it now says its revenues dropped from Continue reading

The Times and Wikileaks: The Fourth Day of the Condor

It’s the climax of the 1975 hit Three Days of the Condor.  On a Manhattan sidewalk fugitive CIA analyst Robert Redford, having outgunned his assassins, confronts his double-dealing boss, who demands he join the sinister plot to control the world’s oil. No way, Redford says, he’s already blown the whistle. And the camera pans across the street where a truckload of newsprint is being delivered—to The New York Times. Game over.

Hooray for Hollywood. Now, would you like to know what really happens when you’re a major league whistleblower?

Continue reading

The Responsibility Trap

David Nelson died last week. He was the last surviving cast member of television’s “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which ran from 1952 to 1966 and, for us Boomers, was the mother of all family sitcoms born in mid-century white suburbia–warm, prosperous, toothless, responsible.

Continue reading

WikiLeaks, Shirley Sherrod and the arrival of the parallel media

First came the tale of Shirley Sherrod, a black U.S. Agriculture Department official in Georgia. She flared into national prominence after a right-wing blogger posted and pushed a cruelly edited videotape of a talk she gave to a civil rights group. In it she seemed to admit to withholding aid from a desperate white farmer because of his race. Sherrod was vilified, fired and, when the video was exposed as essentially fraudulent, vindicated.

Then the WikiLeaks business. WikiLeaks.org, a virtual informational sanctuary for whistleblowers, sluiced tens of thousands of secret U.S. memos and field reports leaked from the Afghanistan war to three top news organizations in the United States and Europe. The three spent weeks on them, and published accounts of incompetence, doubt, brutality and treachery that made headlines worldwide.

Their politics and consequences were dramatically different, but the two affairs have enough in common to warrant seeing them as a single takeaway moment in contemporary media history.

In both cases—the civil servant unjustly lifted from obscurity to serve as a partisan punching bag, and the deluge of secrets shaking certainties about a war that has evaded domestic political challenge—the news agenda was shaped by new media players who were playing by rules of their own.

I think this is a bigger deal that it might seem. The tendency, which I think is wrong, has been to see these cases as reaffirming the power of traditional media. After all, the argument goes, blogger Andrew Breitbart—who launched the Sherrod smear as evidence of that Obama-era “Get Whitie” racism that conservatives claim to perceive—was heeded only because cable news leader Fox News, the mainstream media’s town crier of the Right, was going to lead its evening newscasts with his video.

Likewise, it’s noted that WikiLeaks didn’t simply post its encyclopedic war documents on its own site, but handed them to three established publications—The Guardian of London, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel—and gave them a month to confirm, authenticate and evaluate.

Hence, established media appeared indispensable to ratifying the news from elsewhere, which is why many journalists have dismissed what’s truly novel about all this and instead speak of Breitbart and WikiLeaks simply as “sources.”

I think that badly understates the reality, which goes way beyond the rise of a cool new resource for mainstream reporters. What we have is the emergence of fully-formed, integrated, alternative information systems—the parallel media.

WikiLeaks is a vast, largely clandestine, global information conspiracy, which sees its job as exposing official wrongdoing and has in its four years of existence irritated authorities from China to Kenya and from Russia to Switzerland. It is no mere tip sheet that aspires to tee up stories for established news organizations. Neither is Andrew Breitbart’s blog.

Each of them constitutes a news network unto itself. Each has informants and audiences, each nourishes and in turn feeds off other media, and each directs its energies toward illuminating the public about realities it believes people should know about.

Unlike in geometry, these parallel worlds do converge from time and time. Just as mainstream media look for fresh and original content coming from blogs and websites, so online players angle for mainstream pickup as a powerful way to establish their brands and reach more people.

But that doesn’t mean the parallel media aren’t creating an independent journalistic reality of their own, capable of triggering events and moving opinion with or without the collaboration of the mainstream press.

Regrettably, recent events, when stories born in the parallel media achieved mainstream prominence, are powerful reminders not just of the alternative world’s powers, but of its limitations. Especially its painfully underdeveloped professionalism.

The Sherrod video was a disaster. It was a vicious hoax, and assuming he wasn’t in on it the kindest thing you can say about Breitbart is that he fell for it. He checked out nothing and confirmed nothing. No principled journalist would act so recklessly. He should be cleaning out his desk now.

As for WikiLeaks, its grasp exceeded its reach. It held sensational material it lacked the capacity to handle responsibly. To their credit, its leaders recognized that, and submitted to the editorial judgment of the derided old mainstream press when it came to assessing such fundamentals as authenticity, significance and potential harm.

But if you can’t stand the heat you’re not supposed to call the caterers. And the decision to simply post much of the raw material simultaneously was editorially incoherent.

The future of the parallel media depends on their incorporating into their own operations such values as prudence and care, which aren’t some archaic holdovers from a discredited regime, but are at the core of responsible journalism.

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