The best show not on TV

TV critics are open to the idea that a web series could be the best show around. They’ve just picked the wrong one. According to Metacritic, critics’ favorite new show this fall is Amazon Video’s Transparent (admittedly a brilliant title), a show about Mort Pfefferman’s announcement to his adult children that he’s actually Maura, a woman. I must be missing something, but I don’t see what they’re seeing. It can’t just be that critics are eager to praise a show for finally foregrounding a trans character: they’ve already fallen all over themselves for prison-joke-show Orange is the New Black, which, like Transparent, never seems to be sure if it’s a comedy or a drama and therefore suffers when it tries to be either. In the latter, Jeffrey Tambor plays Mort and Maura, and he’s a pleasure to watch, but he doesn’t have much to work with: his children are entitled, upper-class Californians who don’t want to learn or change and we wouldn’t want to relate to even if we could. The writing is often clumsy; in the first four episodes (which critics saw for initial reviews) I’ve cringed at least once in every scene without Tambor.

The web series that everyone should be talking about (and some people were talking in 2012-13, but not enough) is High Maintenance, on Vimeo. Metacritic doesn’t aggregate reviews for it, even though it’s been extolled in the New Yorker, the New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere. (Note: I emailed and tweeted to Metacritic inquiring about the absence and haven’t heard back.)

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.43.52 AMHigh Maintenance’s running thread is The Guy, an anonymous pot dealer played by show co-creator Ben Sinclair, who bikes to deliver to each episode’s real main character. Some characters recur, starring in some episodes and in the background of others. Every episode is funny, insightful, thoughtfully constructed and scored and filmed. None are really about marijuana, but several characters use it in various ways: as a crutch, conversation starter, self-medication, escape. But that’s rarely the point either. Most bring a life lesson of sorts, and character insights, but they’re conveyed as casually as The Guy slipping you an eighth, with enough respect for the audience not to beat us over the head.

FX courted Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, his wife and co-creator, for a cable deal, but thankfully they stayed online. For High Maintenance’s newest season, you’ll have to pay per episode or, the better deal, for the full season, but it’s well worth it.

Previously, episodes ranged from 5 to 16 minutes long, and the first few of the new season are a little longer, 14-18. Vimeo is releasing these new episodes in bursts: the first three are out now, the next three are out in January, and so forth.

The first episode of the newest season is the best, while the other two are good examples of what happens when the series strays from its strengths. Watch the shows first if you want to avoid spoilers. In the first episode, “Ruth,” The Guy connects two of his clients, both single New Yorkers looking to be matched up. They have a nice first date, but no sparks fly — no big risks were taken, but they both felt comfortable: they smoked in the park, asked bizarre questions, shared a goodnight kiss. Then it turns out she kept a secret that The Guy accidentally spilled: she had stomach cancer. On their second date, while cooking peppers, the man tries to hide that he knows, the woman confronts him, and tension holds. Just at that moment, when their potential energy is waiting to be released or made kinetic, he goes to the bathroom, and gets jalapeño on his dick. The night’s plans are ruined, made both more and less intimate than planned. They share a hilarious recovery, she spends the night, and there’s a poignant turning point the next morning.

The subtle point, narratively, is that The Guy set them up and almost derailed their connection, but his returning to the story kept it moving. The Guy is the audience conduit, the interlocutor, keeping it real. He’s always insightful, always knows what to say. He meets New York’s weirdest but refuses to judge, instead indulging those who sometimes order weed just to socialize. His relative absence from the next two episodes allowed them to drift into caricature.

In “Genghis,” an asexual white magician named Evan quits his boring job to assistant teach underprivileged black kids in Brooklyn. Aside from his sexual non-orientation, this one hits all the stereotypes: the black kids don’t give a shit, the regular teacher doesn’t care either, and the white guy is doofy and everyone laughs at him. At conferences behind the scenes, Evan learns that all the teachers are resigned to prejudice and discipline and have given up on teaching and positivity. The episode’s best line is a throwaway by none of the main characters, delivered in sign language: a rejected actor signs, “I thought doing that fat girl monologue from Louie was such a good idea.” The lesson here is that Evan needs to grow up, but it’s too obvious: we get that he’s childish, after montages of him playing games, doing magic tricks, and watching cartoons, that’s plenty clear. The message is sent when it’s mirrored by his childlike naivety in thinking he could stroll into Brooklyn and make a difference. Had The Guy been more involved earlier on, he could’ve told Evan that sooner. He may not judge, but his wisdom is worth listening to.

In “Geiger,” a woman’s extended nightmare about her boyfriend becoming an extreme survivalist is echoed uncannily in real life. In the dream, which takes up the first half of the episode, fiancé Andrew delves into the world of preppers, and persuades Lucy to become hyper-prepared too. When she wakes up, she smokes a bowl, and maps out their wedding seating with Post-Its. The next day, he drops a wildly unsubtle line, “It’s not the end of the world.”

Then the focus shifts to her anxiety, with Andrew asking if she took her Xanax, and then calling up The Guy, saying Lucy “needs it.” Andrew pressures him for a pound of weed, and when he won’t go for it, Andrew wants his seller’s information. The Guy tells him he can get seeds online, and Andrew becomes obsessed. The fable about how over-focusing on the future prevents you from appreciating the present is far too heavy-handed to enjoy. We got the message in both halves (the dream and reality), didn’t need both, and either one could’ve been cut down. What would’ve been more effective is to cut out the dream and instead draw out The Guy’s concurrent story, in which he visits an AMSR YouTuber and tries to understand her process. Just those few seconds are the episode’s best. The YouTuber is Andrew’s extreme opposite, completely in the present moment, enjoying how the weed bag’s crinkle triggers a “wonderful” sensory reaction. Cut back to Andrew, whom we assume Lucy will soon be leaving. The contrast would’ve still made Andrew’s obsession unnerving, but the lesson wouldn’t be so clumsily implied.

But none of that takes away from the touching, understated lyricism of “Ruth,” nor from High Maintenance’s past episodes, filled with touching, understated moments. In “Stevie,” The Guy offends an uptight client when he reads her pill bottle, but he’s quickly disarming, and by the end of the seven-minute episode, the phone she couldn’t put down before she’s now throwing in the toilet. In “Jonathan,” a dissatisfied comedian suddenly has to cope with an act of violence. Each one is subtle, different from the rest, and different from anything on TV.

Maybe some critics aren’t giving it the time of day because some episodes are so short, some just a few minutes long. But consider the way Louie, heralded as narratively groundbreaking, comprises two 15-minute segments (with commercials, so closer to 11). And why should High Maintenance have to fit into cable-TV lengths? That was likely an enticing point of avoiding FX’s offer — the freedom to end episodes when the stories end, no filler needed. It is this type of consideration that makes High Maintenance well worth your time, and worth a little more of TV critics’ attention.

The best show not on TV

Exclusive interview with PayPal 14 lawyer Omar Figueroa

“corporate America uses the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as their private security firm”

Vincent Kershaw's computer equipment, seized and finally returned by the FBI.
Vincent Kershaw’s computer equipment, seized and finally returned by the FBI.

In 2010, thousands of people launched distributed denial of service attacks against the websites of PayPal and other financial companies in retaliation for those companies’ extra legal blockade of WikiLeaks upon the publication of war logs and diplomatic cables revealed by Chelsea Manning. PayPal said that its website was never actually down, but in court, alleged more than $5 million in damages. Fourteen people were arrested for the action and charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Thirteen of those men and women pled guilty. Eleven of those took felonies on their records, avoiding jail time, but owing a collective total of about $80,000 in restitution to PayPal. The other two served short jail stints instead of having felonies on their records. On October 29, 2014, with the judge in their case retiring, each defendant with a felony had that count dismissed. They paid what they could at the time and each worked out a time frame to pay the remainder, with most owning about $100 per month. One of those activists is Vincent Kershaw. His lawyer is Omar Figueroa, and now that sentencing is over, Kershaw and his legal representative are more free to discuss the case.

Nathan Fuller: So, Omar, thanks for talking to me today and if you could start off just by telling me, who is Vincent Kershaw?

Omar Figueroa: Vincent Kershaw is an individual who lives in Colorado and he was an activist was indicted by the Federal Government for allegedly participating in this distributed denial of service attack.

Why is this case — why are the PayPal 14 and their case important?

This case is important because it sheds light on the abuse of corporate power and how corporate America uses the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as their private security firm.

We know that PayPal is involved, but can you tell us how PayPal and then eBay were involved in this case?

Yes, PayPal was involved. What triggered all this was that PayPal stopped accepting donations made to WikiLeaks, around the time of the Julian Assange controversy and they extra-legally decided to stop accepting payments and these were gonna be donations for what I think is a good cause. First Amendment related activities to disseminate information and to keep secrets from being kept from the American people. Basically, an attempt to shed light on government action. And PayPal was part of the coverup.

What role exactly did they play against the defendants in this case?

PayPal called itself the victim in court, and so they’re the ones who were telling the U.S. attorneys what would be an acceptable outcome for them and what the amounted restitution was. Their role in the litigation was not as active as it would have been had the case gone to trial. So mostly they played a behind-the-scenes role. They were considered the victim.

We saw via Alexa O’Brien’s Daily Beast article that they alleged more than $5 million in damages, but we saw statements from PayPal representatives saying that their website was never actually down. Can you talk about what kind of damages that they are alleging, or was that all behind the scenes?

That was mostly behind the scenes, but they were alleging an impairment to their system, and it’s really funny, because the reports that they filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission claimed that there had been no actual damages and that would have come out at trial. We would have impeached PayPal with their own SEC filings had the case proceeded to trial. I think that was partly why we were given such an unprecedented deal. To correct what you had said about felony on the record — the defendants, the eleven defendants who entered pleas of guilty to a felony charge were never sentenced on those pleas. They were later allowed to withdraw their pleas. Technically, they don’t have any felonies on their record and never did because there cannot be a felony conviction until sentencing. So it is a two-step process. Step 1: Enter a plea. Step 2: Get sentenced. The way the deal was structured, they only went forward with Step 1, they entered a felony plea. They were basically given a time-out. After they completed their time-out, the felony plea was dismissed, and all that remains on the record is a misdemeanor conviction.

Thank you for clearing that up. eBay, as I understand it, is the parent company of PayPal. Were they playing any kind of behind-the-scenes role as well as you understood it?

Not as active as PayPal. As a parent company I think they had corporate counsel but that was probably working with PayPal, but they did not have a prominent role in the litigation.

OK, because we know that Pierre Omidyar, who is on the board of PayPal, made comments later on. He was calling for leniency for the PayPal 14, but the way that he phrased it, he still said that the PayPal 14 had excessive impact and he still kind of accepted the logic of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Do you have any comments on his comments?

Ah, yes. I think he should step up and pay the restitution for the PayPal 14 if he’s truly honest that this case was over-prosecuted. I think if he can put his money where his mouth is, we invite him to do so.

I spoke to another defendant, Mercedes. She was talking about the enormous restrictions placed on the defendants. I was wondering if you could go into detail — some of the restrictions placed on the defendants before sentencing.

Oh, yes. They have numerous conditions of pre-trial release, such as checking in with pre-trial services. It’s basically like being on probation. Many people think that in America you are innocent unless proven guilty, but in the Federal system you are put on probation from day 1. It’s called pre-trial supervision and it is burdensome and onerous as being on probation. It is almost like you are put on probation before you are ever convicted. So the conditions for my client, Vincent Kershaw, also included a ban on being on IRC. He could not be on any IRC activity at all. He was also banned from Twitter. We successfully challenged the ban on IRC — I’m sorry, we successfully challenged the ban on Twitter … but the court did not lift the ban on IRC. I think this is the first case where somebody’s right to tweet was recognized by the courts.

Mercedes was also talking about how these restrictions kind of broke up their social circle. I mean, before these restrictions, this group was their friend circle and so they were not allowed to talk to one another. That really broke them down. Did Vincent suffer from that as well?

Yes. All the defendants had a restriction that they would not communicate with each other unless in the presence of counsel. Basically, it eliminated any relationships that they had if they can’t communicate. Communication is key to maintaining social relationships. Basically, when they are forbidden from talking to their friends it’s going to have a detrimental impact. It’s almost like being grounded by Big Brother.

Has Vincent talked about how happy he is to have that freedom since the sentencing?

Yeah, Vincent was very happy to be able to communicate and to renew those relationships that had been idle. It’s very liberating. I think there is something very oppressive about feeling that the government could be monitoring you. They have the duty, the right to monitor you, and they don’t want you to communicate with your friends. It just feels extremely intrusive. We did our best to fight against that, but that is what the Federal system has come down to. When people are charged in a Federal crime, usually they are forbidden from communicating with their co-defendants.

So at least he does have those restrictions removed. But he does have some money owed left. Is that correct? How much money does he still owe?

He still owes $5600.

And is that on a payment plan?

Yes. The payment plan is going to be $100 a month for the duration of probation which is going to be about twelve months. We anticipate that if he doesn’t pay that off before the probation expires, that the restitution amount, $5600 or whatever is left, will be converted into a civil judgement. That civil judgement cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. So he has to pay it at one point in his life. It is very important for him to try to get it paid off as soon as possible so that he can be a free person again.

I was speaking also to Mercedes and it sounded like there was some surveillance, at least financial surveillance as the government was monitoring the defendants to make sure that they were at least looking for work to attempt to pay restitution. Do you know if that was the case and, if so, is that still the case?

My understanding is that right now the only condition is that they pay but not like they have to get a job or they have to do something in particular. I can only speak to Vincent Kershaw. He doesn’t have any conditions other than make his payments. Once he’s done making his payments, probation will be terminated. That’s why it’s so important that the funds be raised as soon as possible so that these people who have been under very restrictive conditions for four years can be set free as soon as possible. They’ve served their time and then some. They’ve already done four years probation.

Where can people who support the PayPal 14 — can people donate to them?

Absolutely. I think there is a PayPal 14 website and there is also a foundation in Germany that is helping with the fundraising. As well, the defendants are embarking on a fundraising project that is going to involve them auctioning off the computer equipment that they obtained from the FBI, that they got back from the FBI.

They’ve already all received that equipment back?

I can speak for Vincent Kershaw. He received his equipment back, yes.

Vincent Kershaw's computer equipment, returned by the FBI.
Vincent Kershaw’s computer equipment.

So that auction will happen soon, I hope.

Yes. The auction will probably be started on eBay, the parent company of PayPal, ironically enough.

We were also discussing about the defendants’ collective options as far as saving up money to liberate one of them or whether they want to liberate each of them individually. Do you know if they have come together to discuss that or whether that is something they are going to do in the future?

They are going to discuss that in the future. For now the default is going to be that nobody is free until they are all free. But they are talking about maybe establishing a lottery so that those who can be off probation can get off probation and they can still help the rest with the fundraising.

That would be great. Is there anything else you want to add, Omar?

Yes. I think that the point of this case — it goes back to WikiLeaks, it’s about transparency in government. It’s about people engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. This case, the distributed denial of service attack, I see it not as breaking and entering or as a physical trespass. It’s more akin to a game of Ding, Dong, Ditch, where somebody is ringing the doorbell. The response by the federal government was disproportionate. It just seems to me that it was a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars to go after nonviolent, good-intentioned people who are standing up for what is right.

 As far as I understood it, thousands of people took part in that action and only 14-

Absolutely, it was really arbitrary who was selected by the government. The people who operated the botnets and who were responsible for the most pings, those people were never arrested, were never brought before the court. They got off scot-free. They just went after the little fish. The little fish they were able to catch but the big fish got away.

These 14 were seemingly selected at random?

It seems like it to us. We couldn’t really find any — it’s just whoever they are able to catch.

Seemingly disproportionately prosecuted as a potential deterrent is you’re understanding?

Oh, yes. They wanted to make a big example out of them.

Do you think they succeeded in that or do you find there is more support for the PayPal 14 and more people are inspired to support them?

I think they did not succeed. I think there is more support. If anything, this case has set a precedent for future activists because they are going to want the same deal that the PayPal 14 got, which is a time-out with a misdemeanor at the end and no felony convictions. I think even that is draconian because the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act used to require malice. When the government was not able to get convictions because they couldn’t prove malice, they dropped the malice requirements. Initially it was required to be malicious. I would argue that the PayPal 14 were not malicious. If anything, they were acting out of idealism. It was not a malicious action, it was an idealistic act of civil disobedience.

That law was written in 1986, I believe. In the last few years it has been really used to crack down on civil disobedience and political action, like Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and others.

Absolutely. It’s been abused. If that law had the malice requirement like it did when it was first passed by the Congress, they probably could not go after Chelsea Manning or Jeremy Hammond without proving that they were malicious.

Do you believe there is any option that we have to repeal it, to get rid of it, or to end its abuse?

Yes, I think the option that we have at this point, with Congressional gridlock, it’s going to be difficult to repeal. But prosecutors have so much discretion that the law doesn’t need to be repealed, it just needs to be applied in a judicious and wise fashion. And go after the foreign intelligence services that are stealing industrial secrets from American companies and not go after American activists who are engaged in civil disobedience because they want open government, and they are advocating for transparency.

Alright. Omar Figueroa, legal representative for Vincent Kersaw, member of the PayPal 14, thank you very much for talking with me today.

Thank you, Nathan. It was a pleasure.

Exclusive interview with PayPal 14 lawyer Omar Figueroa

Obama’s police reforms will strengthen the police

COPWATCH_logo

As Reuters reports, President Obama is planning to spend $263 million on police reforms, including 50,000 body cameras for police officers, which would cover less than 10 percent of the total working in cities and suburbs, in “response to the civil rights upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri,” and “is setting up a task force to study how to improve modern-day policing.”

The White House has also spent months reviewing local police’s military-grade weaponry, like tanks and ballistic helmets and helicopters, and to what should be no one’s surprise, announced that it finds them quite necessary.

The New York Times, nevertheless, framed the review results as adversarial, in an article originally titled “Obama to Toughen Standards on Police Use of Military Gear.” The Times writes that Obama will “tighten standards on the provision of military-style equipment by local police departments” but he “stopped short of curtailing the transfer” of these weapons.

What does that really mean? He’ll tighten standards, but won’t curtail the transfer? The White House’s report found “a lack of consistency in how federal programs are structured, implemented and audited.” According to Reuters, “What is needed…is much greater consistency in oversight of these programs,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

So no changes to the steady flow of weaponry, which the Times helpfully, visually explains here:

State and local police departments can obtain free military surplus equipment through the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which was created in the early 1990s in response to high crime and drug violence across the country. More than $5 billion worth of equipment has been transferred since the program was started.

Quick notes about the Times’ language, about which alone one could teach a class. In it’s first iteration, the article said, “Mr. Obama is also meeting on Monday with civil rights leaders and law enforcement officials to discuss the stubborn mistrust between the police and the public in African-American communities.” Are both sides “stubborn”? It’s conveniently unclear. Certainly the public has ample reason not to “trust” cops, one of whom has recently killed Michael Brown and been cleared, the rest of whom have spent months of their energy, money, time, and weaponry to defend. As NewsDiffs shows, this article endured several serious edits, and that paragraph was changed to put the neutrality in Obama’s mouth: “Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis,” the president told reporters, describing a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” He called for a “sustained conversation in which, in each region of the country, people are talking about this honestly.”

On to what Obama actually did call for, and what many police reformers have been calling for: body cameras. Both the Times and Reuters reports note that such cameras “could” help give more information in police altercations, with the Times saying it could’ve helped “clarify” Michael Brown’s killing.

The problem with this new policy is the cameras will be under cops’ control, not merely filming their interactions. Police will simply use this new footage — another system of surveillance at their hip — to their advantage. In a post countering several arguments in favor of body cameras for police, David Banks shows how police officers already using them reveal their intent: “Cop-mounted cameras are meant to compete with, and ultimately discredit, citizens’ filming of cops.”

Further police testimony is telling:

One officer praises the cameras for capturing what a nearby cell phone video did not: “Now you can see the [suspect] punching the officer twice in the face before he hits him with his baton.” These sorts of quotes are almost always paired with an assurance that these systems do not get officers in trouble. From the same article: “I heard guys complaining it would get them into trouble, but I’ve had no problems so I’m OK with it[.]”

Banks quotes Ben Brucato, “the very proliferation of media documenting extreme police violence, resulting in severe injuries and even death to civilians, speaks to the limitations of visibility as a protective power.” Many cops have been caught killing civilians on camera, only to twist the evidence in court and ultimately walk free.

Perhaps video footage would have helped indict Darren Wilson, but as I noted here, grand juries are essentially rubber stamps for cops, and experts have already observed the many ways in which Wilson acted improperly, and the grand jury exonerated him anyway.

Furthermore, technology can stop working for authorities at crucial moments (video feed cut out at several moments when I covered the Manning trial, at Ft. Meade, where they’re competent enough to host the NSA). The medical examiner in Michael Brown’s case did not photograph Brown’s body. When asked why, s/he said, “My battery in my camera died.”

Cameras on cops will be trained on citizens, not police. We need to curtail cops’ weapons, surveillance, and immunity. None of Obama’s reforms move toward those goals.

Update, 12/2/14: President Obama is establishing a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to be co-chaired by Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, George Mason University professor and former DOJ assistant attorney general. As Alternet reports, Ramsey in particular is known for abusive tactics. The director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund said, “If the president’s idea of reforming policing practices includes mass false arrests, brutality, and the eviscerating of civil rights, then Ramsey’s his man.”

Obama’s police reforms will strengthen the police

New York Times plays up Ferguson’s Good Cop

(Analyzing the NYT’s framing could be a full-time job.)

OFFICER-master675
Lt. Jerry Lohr | Photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

On Thursday, the New York Times published “In Ferguson, Officer Defused Eruptions as Crowds Grew Tense,” a profile of St. Louis County Police’s Good Cop, Lt. Jerry Lohr. Lohr, with the Times‘ help, is here to counter what you’ve been hearing for months about the Ferguson cops and their abuse of the black community rising up in anger over the death of Michael Brown. Naturally, the Times opens its story with descriptions of the violence protesters have been perpetrating, burying accounts of tear gas and omitting rubber bullets altogether. But to the main point, the Times writes:

Before, during and after that first night of violence, few law enforcement officials have done more on the ground to ease the volatility of protesters than Lieutenant Lohr, who is white. And few of his white colleagues have been able to connect with the largely black crowds better than he has.

To give him credibility, they write:

“We were having a conversation one day out here, and he seemed like a pretty decent guy, so I grew to like him,” said [protester] Mr. Williams, who is black and lives in Ferguson.

Lohr, who “never wears riot gear,” appeals to white liberals (Times readers) because he seems to represent the idea that a simple dialogue is all that’s needed to bridge racial and power disparities.

He also helps them forget about the army of cops, in Ferguson and in every city in America, and increasingly in every small town, who nearly always wear riot gear to quell protests, no matter how peaceful.

The main effect of the Times piece, intentional or not, is to advance the cops’ strategy, which is to deploy a Good Cop who distracts from the Bad Cops, makes you think the especially bad ones are just “bad apples” running rogue, and implies that simple reforms or mere rooting out of the excessive few is all that’s needed.

The good cop/bad cop routine is typically used in interrogations, but it’s easy to see how the principle can be applied more broadly.

Slate asked retired police officers and experts to confirm that the practice is used, and they explain it:

Joseph Pollini, a retired lieutenant commander, told us that it’s definitely used on occasion. The typical set-up, he said, will have the intimidating “bad” cop first, followed by the more personable “good” cop, who assures the suspect that everything will be “fine.” Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that it’s used “all the time,” mainly by detectives. “When a person is confronted by two individuals, one friendly and one hostile, he or she will ultimately create a much better relationship or zone of comfort with the friendly one,” Haberfeld explains. “Especially if the hostile one is truly threatening.”

In Ferguson, after media messaging got out of hand, with police portrayed as unruly and too aggressive, the police sent in the good cop, to calm the crowds and send the message via the media that not all cops are riot-geared warriors and that dialogue is feasible.

This isn’t the first time that Ferguson police have tried this, and it isn’t the first time the media have helped. In August, we suddenly began hearing stories about Ferguson’s Captain Ronald Johnson, who the Times wrote “immediately signaled a change in approach. Captain Johnson told reporters he had ordered troopers to remove their tear-gas masks, and in the early evening he accompanied several groups of protesters through the streets, clasping hands, listening to stories and marching alongside them.” He might as well be one of them.

A week later Johnson got his own laudatory Times profile, in which he says, “I’ve just tried to stand on that line of what’s right.” This too, obscures the basic power imbalance the police will always wield. Cops are getting more and more weapons from the Department of Homeland Security while decrying the protestors’ “violence.” According to the Bureau of Justice, “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010…Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.” Meanwhile, “In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.”

As Malcom Harris wrote at the time:

After making headlines for mediating, Capt. Johnson observed a “turning point” in the police response to protesters. That could be read another way, as a call for turning point, as a request for passivity — in the several months since, Johnson has faded from media headlines, but the protests continue, as Governor Nixon announced a state of emergency before a non-indictment, the St. Louis County exonerated the now-retired-and-married Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, and police continue to violently repress.

By portraying a single cop’s narrative, the Times distracts from the rest of what Ferguson’s protesters are dealing with. But especially by playing up a “good cop,” the Times is playing right into police strategy, as those in riot gear lie in wait.

New York Times plays up Ferguson’s Good Cop

Blog Postmortem: learning from the billionaire journalism model

At least Matt Taibbi is writing again. He’s back with Rolling Stone, where he published ‘The $9 Billion Witness,’ an excellent account of Alayne Fleishman, the whistleblower JPMorgan Chase and the DOJ tried to silence:

This past year she watched as Holder’s Justice Department struck a series of historic settlement deals with Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America. The root bargain in these deals was cash for secrecy. The banks paid big fines, without trials or even judges – only secret negotiations that typically ended with the public shown nothing but vague, quasi-official papers called “statements of facts,” which were conveniently devoid of anything like actual facts.

And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. “I could be sued into bankruptcy,” she says. “I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don’t start speaking up, then this really is all we’re going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history.”

Good stuff. It’s Taibbi’s first publicly available journalism since February. But it’s in Rolling Stone because Taibbi parted ways with First Look after ruffling president Pierre Omidyar’s feathers, before publishing a single word for the Racket, the magazine he was supposed to launch under the First Look Media umbrella this fall. Today, Omidyar announced that he’s scrapping the project altogether, and firing everyone Taibbi had culled for the magazine. Beyond being the billionaire behind eBay and former Paypal board member, which in my view makes him megalomaniacal on its own, Omidyar also micromanages comically:

The lack of autonomous budgets, for instance, meant that in many cases Omidyar was personally signing off on—and occasionally objecting to—employee expense reports for taxi rides and office supplies. Both Cook, The Intercept‘s editor-in-chief, and Taibbi chafed at what they regarded as onerous intrusions into their hiring authority.

Taibbi and First Look disagreed over the functionality of the website, the timing of its launch, which designers and programmers they would use,  Racket‘s organizational chart—even, at one point, over office seating assignments.

Hopefully someone will leak Omidyar’s disputed seating chart while he’s busy reviewing Staples receipts. Not hard to see why Intercept editor John Cook is jumping ship too.

Tarzie, blogger-turned-heretic for “lefties in the back row” who has been calling all of this from day one (meaning while everyone else was dismissing criticism of billionaire journalism with “it’s too early to judge”), has picked out the highlights (lowlights) from the New York mag Omidyar profile. (My favorite: “Omidyar’s organization operates a little like WikiLeaks, except it is staffed by well-salaried journalists and backed by Silicon Valley money.”)

As Chris Floyd says, “You lie down with dogs, Matt, you get up with fleas. What the hell else did you think would happen?” What did Taibbi think would happen, working for the guy who sat on the board of PayPal as it froze the account of WikiLeaks, an act of clear censorship and government-corporate collusion, that no respectable journalist, or lefty, and certainly no lefty journalist, should condone by association. Those who point to Omidyar’s extremely belated request for “leniency” for the PayPal 14 should call on the 123rd richest man in the world to pay the activists’ measly $80,000 restitution (that total was before last month’s sentencing, so it’s now even lower). They should also note that Omidyar’s handwringing upholds the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act’s logic, which gives corporations a dangerous, disproportionate weapon to use against activists, whom Omidyar says are the ones who wield “excessive impact” online.

Umfuld is a Tumblr blogger covering the Intercept and PandoDaily, a news site founded by Sarah Lacy that covers Silicon Valley. He contrasts Taibbi’s split with Pando’s firing of David Sirota, a liberal journalist from whom the Intercept quotes heavily in its latest piece on Wall Street:

To compare Carr laying off David Sirota with Omidyar firing Matt Taibbi there are some important differences:
– Omidyar never let Taibbi publish a word even though he clearly paid good money for the story critical of predatory lending to be produced.
– Carr laid off Sirota after publishing / editing several of his pension articles, one of which has brought threats of a huge lawsuit from Chris Christie, or something.
– Carr laid off Sirota during a substantial decline in readership.
– Omidyar fired Taibbi despite his clearly being the best chance for The Racket to have a major impact when launched.
– Sirota is / was under no non-disclosure agreement with Pando.
– Taibbi is clearly forbidden to discuss his firing by Omidyar.

You get the idea. Hopefully.

Pando also saw some problems coming, noting differences in Omidyar’s and Taibbi’s outlooks for the magazine this summer. In February 2014, according to the New York Times, Taibbi intended to “start his own publication focusing on financial and political corruption.” Just a few months later, Omidyar published a blog post on First Look’s progress, looking forward to working with “the talented Matt Taibbi to plan and launch this fall a new digital magazine with a satirical approach to American politics and culture.” One wonders if Taibbi got bold enough to suggest Omidyar — whose own philanthropy is incredibly shady — should be up for coverage. Who knows? As Umfuld notes and as many suspect, it appears Taibbi is under a non-disclosure agreement, and so we may never get more than the Intercept’s official account, which paints Omidyar as a controller and the writers as iconoclasts just trying to get things done.

We should largely ignore this narrative of personalities, because — besides the fact that it’s an official account and Taibbi isn’t given a voice — it obscures the structural lessons journalists and media critics should be learning.

What has happened under Omidyar’s reign? Tarzie, on top of this more than anyone, has the latest on Greenwald’s slow-motion leaking of Snowden’s documents (I’m more interested in them than he is — interested, for instance, that we have more confirmation that the Country X the Intercept redacted is in fact Afghanistan, though the original country and not the corroboration came from the cache), which has shifted from him not being allowed to give anyone else documents to now vetting even freelance journalists to view the full set and don’t you ask why.

Only recently, I’ve been covering some of the Intercept’s other writers and their framing, as have others before me, like Arthur Silber, Kevin Dooley, Patrick Higgins, Chris Floyd, and others.

On the larger lessons: one thing to note is that money doesn’t buy journalism. Omidyar hired many of the left’s favorite, and some of the US’s most popular, journalists, and paid many of them to simply not write. For months, Matt Taibbi, Liliana Segura, and the rest of the First Look staff were publishing at much lower rates than before, if at all. Of course, preparation takes time, but Taibbi’s first piece was already written by the time he was canned, and it’s unclear what was keeping the Intercept’s production down.

But money does buy influence, social circles, and conformity. Holding out a $250 million enterprise, with most lefty journalists in America freelancing to pay rent, Omidyar and his top hires felt comfortable that anyone who might want a job would refrain from criticizing this obviously dubious deal. Timothy Shorrock said the NYMag Omidyar profile should’ve been called “left-wing journalists close their eyes to money & hypocrisy.” Protesting that it’s still too early to make that call, Arun Gupta said what he seems to think is a defense: “I know for fact many scores of well-known left journos tried to get a job there.” Only when the Intercept appeared finished with a round of hires did some ease up enough to point out some flaws, but too few of those were structural.

As Tarzie said – again, from day one:

No doubt Greenwald is shrewdly negotiating for full editorial autonomy from Mr. .00001%, so, as Arthur Silber remarked: ‘look for all the stories about the corrupt, vicious ruling class by January at the latest.’

For Greenwald or his colleagues to claim “editorial autonomy” is to deflect the criticism. Sure, Omidyar isn’t over their shoulder (though he does write “more on [their] internal messaging than anyone else”), but as Greenwald himself put it in 2007:

I think it’s relevant who owns any journalistic outlet. The reason for that is obvious. The reason is people who work for companies know who signs their paychecks and know the work they do ought to be pleasing to the people who sign their paychecks.

Furthermore, will Omidyar – himself a very active political, philanthropic, and economic player, having funded members of India’s Modi government and Ukraine’s parliament – be subject to the Intercept’s fearless, adversarial journalism? Nope.

Which way forward for the Intercept? One of their newest hires, Sharon Weinberger, will serve as national security editor. A former defense analyst for SPC, a research, electronics and computer software company working for the US DoD, Weinberger could be seen partnering with ex-DoD & Booz Allen VP Dov Zakheim, giving weaponry advice to the US military, and fear-mongering about Iran’s nuclear weapons as recently as 2009 in the New York Post:

It underscored the US’s greatest fears — a nuclear Iran isn’t just about the Middle East, it’s about all the countries that Iran could supply with arms and technology.

What’s so fearless and adversarial about that? At this rate, the Racket‘s folding is good news. Taibbi is better off without Omidyar, as are the rest of us.

Back to Tarzie, back to the bigger picture:

The hoarding of wealth, like the hoarding of state secrets, is really not such a bad thing when it can be parlayed into more wealth and slightly better journalism, and if you think otherwise you must be jealous.

That’s the implication we’ll take away, unless we remove our money blinders.

It’s not like we don’t have valuable cultural critics and systems of analysis at the ready — it’s more a matter of whether and where to apply them. As Tarzie wrote to Noam Chomsky about the Propaganda Model, which he and Edward Herman set forth in Manufacturing Consent:

It is my sincere belief that The Propaganda Model applies all the way out to the margins of American discourse, and that it is as useful for analyzing a Democracy Now broadcast or an issue of Jacobin as it is to understanding the Fox News Network.

As he notes, five filters operate on news media:

  1. Ownership of the medium
  2. Medium’s funding sources
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak
  5. Fear ideology

Tarzie analyzes how these filters operate on a Democracy Now! broadcast, and then discusses Chomsky’s representation of Aaron Swartz’s case.

It seems eminently reasonable to apply the Propaganda Model to every news outlet, particularly one run by a micromanaging billionaire who’s investing in right-wing governments in India and the Ukraine and who oversaw and could’ve done more to stop an unprecedented act of corporate censorship on behalf of the state against WikiLeaks at its time of perhaps greatest need. The lesson to be learned from First Look is that Omidyar’s move was, consciously or not, one to curtail the margins of acceptable discourse, and that applying the Propaganda Model with scrutiny is an attempt to expand those margins, or at least to understand where they are, and how they work, and for whom.

Chomsky’s flaw is that he assumes the Model only applies to corporate media, that independent and nonprofit media are above reproach. There is no clean money, which is less a blanket condemnation than a categorical understanding of the compromises and competing interests involved in the news media industry. I’ll preempt accusations of purity with the free admission that no media organization is perfect. Yes, many news outlets are owned by billionaires. But when one of them brands itself as iconoclastic and editorially autonomous, we should take a closer look to see whether that’s true, or even possible. The far left rightly laughs at MSNBC for essentially playing the Democrats’ counterpart to Fox News, justifying President Obama’s every move, turning into an anti-Republican machine come election time, and mocking the idea of anything outside the two-party system. Those paying closer attention notice that MSNBC would never take its owner, Comcast, to journalistic task. Hardly hard-hitting news. But the same left hesitates to criticize what it sees as one of their own.

There is a growing consensus, at least on the left, that objective journalism is a myth. Every news outlet is subjective, at the very least by the stories they choose to cover and those they ignore. Speaking generally, it’s time we took this a step further and understand that total autonomy can only exist in a vacuum. It’s far more valuable to investigate the conflicts, money, and interests that will always be at play, and keep asking questions to ensure as much independence as possible.

Blog Postmortem: learning from the billionaire journalism model

Obama expands — not just extends — US war on Afghanistan

It’s worth noting that Obama’s “decision” authorizing US troops’ role in Afghanistan in 2015 is not merely an extension of war he promised to end this year; it’s also an expansion, as US forces are now given new powers, allowed to kill new targets and use new weapons:

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

As Marcy Wheeler writes,

Virtually simultaneously with the decision to permit American forces to be more involved with the Afghan government, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has reversed Hamid Karzai’s ban on night raids — and also renamed them “night operations.”

The Times has more on that here:

Nazifullah Salarzai, Mr. Ghani’s spokesman, said that the American and NATO missions in 2015 would be governed by the security agreements the Afghan government has signed with the United States and with NATO.

Neither agreement precludes the possibility of joint night raids.

Some Afghans are worried about resumption of the raids.

The Taliban will be going into other people’s houses, and the Americans will be behind them again, and there will be losses again of women and children when Taliban shoot from people’s houses, and in reaction the foreigners will bomb or kill them,” said Haji Abdullah Jan, a local shura leader in the Maiwand District of Kandahar Province. “I am not in favor of night raids because we have experienced such huge losses from them during those past years.

Nevertheless, headlines have largely said that Obama merely “extended” the US’s role, implicitly focusing on the limited, less surprising, less interesting aspect of Obama’s hypocrisy. Continue reading “Obama expands — not just extends — US war on Afghanistan”

Obama expands — not just extends — US war on Afghanistan

The disappearing classified order

Friday night, the New York Times published a major story online under the then-all-caps headline, “IN SECRET, OBAMA EXTENDS U.S. ROLE IN AFGHAN COMBAT.” Upon publication, at 9:33pm EST, Mark Mazzetti’s and Eric Schmitt’s article began,

President Obama signed a secret order in recent weeks authorizing a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

It’s especially relevant that the order was signed in secret, because the decision directly contradicts Obama’s 2012 campaign rhetoric about withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — in fact, Obama specifically made it a campaign issue that he promised to withdraw troops by this year’s end, whereas Mitt Romney had no timetable.

On Twitter, journalist Gregory Johnson noted another, implicit reason for the story’s importance: “Unmentioned, but I assume this also allows Guantanamo to stay open another year,” with Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith explaining, “It precludes Taliban detainees from arguing ‘end of hostilities’ as a basis for release for another year.”

The next morning, however, I noticed the print edition carried the much different headline, “IN A SHIFT, OBAMA EXTENDS U.S. ROLE IN AFGHAN COMBAT.” Continue reading “The disappearing classified order”

The disappearing classified order

New York Times blames Iran for US sanctions

Maintaining the continued threat of Iran’s nuclear program is consistently useful to the US government’s foreign policy rhetoric. For decades it has been used to justify sending billions of dollars every year to Israel for “self-defense” and to maintain the US’s own billion-dollar nuclear stockpile. It has been used to justify US sanctions on Iran, Israel’s assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists (implicitly), and various strategic proxy wars.

The New York Timestimeline, just ahead of upcoming finalizing talks with Iran, covering “whether Iran is racing toward nuclear weapon capabilities” is therefore quite useful in upholding this theme. The Times says Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program is “one of the most contentious issues challenging the West, including the United States and Israel, which has been involved in a shadow war with the country,” using the singular “has” and thus shielding the United States from that clause, despite the US’s decades of “crippling” sanctions, to use its own term. Sanctions both deprive ordinary citizens of food and medicine and serve as a trapping prelude to war: the logic goes that if sanctions don’t work, meaning if you don’t bend to our will, we’ll have to take it up a notch. Continue reading “New York Times blames Iran for US sanctions”

New York Times blames Iran for US sanctions

Entrapment and how systemic abuse perpetuates itself

I have a new article up over at Truthout, “Not So Paranoid,” regarding the New York Times‘ reporting on the US government’s increased and increasing use of undercover agents in nearly every agency. This privacy-infringing practice is immune from accountability, and it only serves to justify its own expansion, since it entraps people who wouldn’t be committing crimes otherwise.

Read the full piece here.

Entrapment and how systemic abuse perpetuates itself

Brief Questioning of Hideous Men

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel on Reforms to the Nuclear Enterprise in the Pentagon Briefing Room

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL

Q: “Where’s the accountability for the failure to I guess improve and take the steps that were needed over this time? How many billions of dollars?”
Q: “How did the air crews manage with just one wrench?”
Q: “Everybody’s asking: What happened to your cheek?”
Q: (inaudible) — “Cabinet meeting.” (Laughter.)
Q: “Over the years, we’ve heard very similar words from your predecessors. How do you convey to the American public that this time will be different?”

Brief Questioning of Hideous Men

Syria: intervention update

The New York Times reports on what US bombs have done to regular civilians in Syria since airstrikes began this summer:

many people are angry at the Americans. Food and fuel prices in Raqqa have soared, power blackouts have prevailed, and order is now threatened by a vacuum of any authority.

For all their violence and intolerance toward disbelievers, the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at least functioned as a government, providing basic services and some semblance of stability.

“People don’t want some outside power to attack,” Khalid Farhan, a Raqqa resident, said during a recent trip to Turkey.

Syrian civilians now see not that ISIS was a noble organization but that by contrast, American airstrikes have left them completely destabilized. Continue reading “Syria: intervention update”

Syria: intervention update

The Paper of No Records (updated with NYT response)

Update below

In its bold ‘Response to President Xi Jinping‘ of China, the New York Times editorial board takes a stand:

The Times has no intention of altering its coverage to meet the demands of any government — be it that [sic] of China, the United States or any other nation. Nor would any credible news organization. The Times has a long history of taking on the American government, from the publication of the Pentagon Papers to investigations of secret government eavesdropping.

But despite the Times‘ claims to the contrary, this, like most rules, must come with an American Exception. This is a brazen whitewashing of the very type of stories the New York Times is known for withholding to meet the demands of the United States government: secret government eavesdropping. As has been well documented, the Times sat on James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s revelation that the Bush administration was illegally wiretapping American citizens without warrants for more than a year, publishing ‘Bush Lets U.S. Spy On Callers Without Courts’ on December 16, 2005. Continue reading “The Paper of No Records (updated with NYT response)”

The Paper of No Records (updated with NYT response)

Hello to Language: on the words Godard inspired

Fandor’s Michael Atkinson lays out the ways in which even normally perceptive critics have been stupefied by Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film, Goodbye to Language, forgetting that narratively unconventional doesn’t mean incomprehensible and walking on critical eggshells as they warn viewers that they might have to do a little brain-work instead of watching passively. Lou Lumenick, who writes of Godard’s “private language only film critics and Upper West Side audiences pretend to understand at this point,” is the least subtle of these, but writing for the New York Post, he’s also the easiest fish in the barrel to shoot. Atkinson thankfully aims his sights a little higher.

The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, no slouch generally, windily maintains that Godard “seems to divide the world into skeptics and worshipers, with not much middle ground,” hardly bothering to make a case as to what a middle ground would look like, or why the “skeptics” (as if Godard is a conspiracy theorist) are simply moviegoers that do not or will not consider anything out of the structural mainstream.

Then:

The routinely astute Andrew O’Hehir, at Salon, even seemed at a loss, writing what he said might be a “reader-proof” review of what might be a “viewer-proof” movie—gingerly saying that you “have to cast aside preconceptions about movies being entertaining, or at least about what you think that means, in order to enjoy Goodbye to Language, and that’s not possible for everybody.”

I could add to the critique. Atkinson says Eric Kohn “gets” Godard but his review also calls it “baffling,” “esoteric,” and “dense.” The always thoughtful Bilge Ebiri opens a positive review, “I’ve now seen Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film twice, and I think I might be one more viewing away from finally being able to say what the hell it’s about.”

It’s actually not very difficult to enjoy, and it’s not as purely cerebral as even its advocates make it seem, by which I mean it’s also viscerally fun and fascinating and challenging and worthwhile. Continue reading “Hello to Language: on the words Godard inspired”

Hello to Language: on the words Godard inspired

Libyan lessons learned

“What Happened to the Humanitarians Who Wanted to Save Libyans With Bombs and Drones?” asks The Intercept.

I’m writing mostly to answer this question because it isn’t explicitly said in the article: what happened to advocates of the western war on Libya was that they were rewarded with further inclusion in media circles as members of the serious establishment who believe that the US has humanitarian intentions, bombs can save lives, and war can bring peace. The co-author of the piece, in fact, is one of them. Continue reading “Libyan lessons learned”

Libyan lessons learned

Selection day

Early reports tell me that these fuckers trade portions of power back and forth to give alternating factions of Americans the recurring delusion that they retain the capacity for meaningful change while funneling their money ever upward into the pockets and offshore accounts of bankers, multinationals, and increasingly private security forces, but check back every few years for a more expensive update. Back to you.

Selection day

The PayPal 14 case has effectively ended, but they still need your help (updated)

Update, 11/3/14: Journalist Douglas Lucas was in the San Jose, CA, courtroom last week, and he reports that each of the defendants with felonies on their records had those dismissed, and each worked out a timeframe to pay the remainder of their owed restitution.

Though many declined, each defendant was given the opportunity to make a statement in court. Ethan Miles, who previously chose jail time over having a felony on his record, said in part:

It is because of my desire for transparency that I participated in the Internet activity that brings me here today. I believe that for a healthy democracy to exist, the public must be informed.

The full report at the Cryptosphere contains photos, more commentary on the day’s events, and more information about each defendant.

Original Story

They’ll each pay what restitution money they have and will be placed on payment plans for the remainder

The PayPal 14 are activists charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for launching Distributed Denial of Service attacks against the websites of PayPal and other financial companies in retaliation for those companies’ extra-legal blockade of WikiLeaks upon the publication of secret documents exposing US atrocities, revealed by US Army private Chelsea Manning. Back in 2010, a PayPal representative said that on November 27, 2010, the US State Department sent the online commerce service a letter informing them that WikiLeaks was engaging in “illegal” activities, and PayPal consequently blocked funds to the publisher. Believing this was clear censorship, the PayPal 14 struck back. Continue reading “The PayPal 14 case has effectively ended, but they still need your help (updated)”

The PayPal 14 case has effectively ended, but they still need your help (updated)

The war on drugs is doing just fine

Ryan Devereaux writes ‘Surprise: U.S. Drug War in Afghanistan Not Going Well.’ He details a new report from the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, claiming that “despite spending over $7 billion to combat opium poppy cultivation and to develop the Afghan government’s counternarcotics capacity, opium poppy cultivation levels in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013.” These so-called “failures” have been “consistently documented for years.”

One reason that poppy levels have been growing for so long is that U.S. Marines have actively protected their cultivation. According to Geraldo Rivera’s framing, Marines “tolerate cultivation” of opium in Afghanistan as recently as 2010 for “security reasons,” because if it was destroyed, the population would turn against the U.S. Continue reading “The war on drugs is doing just fine”

The war on drugs is doing just fine

Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway

In the Intercept, Dan Froomkin writes that ‘Obama Knew Arming Rebels [in Syria] Was Useless, But Did it Anyway.’ His argument is based on a “New York Times story about how President Obama asked the CIA a while back whether arming rebel forces – pretty much the agency’s signature strategy — had ever worked in the past.” It’s important to note that “worked” here, though never spelled out, essentially means “toppled the side that wasn’t U.S.-compliant in favor of one that’d bow to us in return for arming opposition forces.”

Froomkin largely chalks up Obama’s decision to “political pressure,” linking to this Fox News post, ‘Republicans urge Obama to enforce Syria ‘red line,’ oppose deploying troops.’ Even when the Democratic president arms the rebels, it’s the Republicans’ fault. By perpetuating the liberal trope that Democrats are peaceful in principle but spineless in the face of gridlock, Froomkin lets them off the hook and plays into their own political finger-pointing. Democrats couldn’t have justified it better themselves. Continue reading “Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway”

Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway

Pathologizing Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s street photography is worthy of a Museum of Modern Art installation — whether she’d have wanted it displayed there is another question. Maier was a nanny for decades, all the while creating fantastic photographs, shooting from her waist-level Roliflex as she escorted children around Chicago. Collector John Maloof stumbled upon a trove of her stunningly reflective, beautifully composed negatives of city characters at an auction after her death, and subsequently applauded himself for Finding Vivian Maier in a documentary that hit U.S. theaters in March.

It was a treat to see Maier’s black and white perspective on the big screen — her candid shots are evocative, varied, and fresh, reminiscent of Leon Levinstein or Robert Frank, and still breathing more than fifty years later. She had a keen eye for poignant moments and lively characters, but she also took penetrating self-portraits and more abstract street shots.

But it quickly became clear that Maloof was more interested in painting Maier as an oddball than in understanding her ostensible contradictions, and worse, in pathologizing her double life to cast aspersions on her motives. “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” he asks, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. He might have asked about Wallace Stevens, ‘Why would an insurance agent be writing all these poems?’ Maloof implies a romanticized ideal of the artist without any real-world evidence that giving up her day job would’ve made Maier a better photographer. As it was, Maier supervised children for so many years and still managed to take hundreds of thousands of top-notch stills. Continue reading “Pathologizing Vivian Maier”

Pathologizing Vivian Maier

Mourning Phase

Beck has learned to say goodbye, he’s endured i-so-la-tion, someone or he himself remains unforgiven. He may have dropped the “u” for the title, but in his Morning Phase, Beck is grieving. He’s also slowly resigning himself to the consistency of change, and his new album is gorgeous and sad and comforting all at once.

Morning, sunrise, and “waking light” all herald CHANGE in big — if fuzzy — letters. Something is new. She is gone. The bed is bigger and colder and your arms feel weirdly long when you don’t need them to wrap someone else closer. Continue reading “Mourning Phase”

Mourning Phase

Empathy for empire

Molly Crabapple, a political artist whose artwork I frequently admire and appreciate and some of which decorates my walls, recently admonished what she terms the “Western left” for failing to properly and tangibly support the Syrian revolutionaries fighting their government. She coats this condemnation in deep concern for the Syrian people, but the barely latent thesis shines through: Crabapple is arguing for military intervention.

If it wasn’t clear, Crabapple elucidates when responding to questions about her piece from Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola.

Very often on the left there’s this way where we simplify things, where we’re like, ‘America has fucked up in the Middle East, America murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq.’ And then we look at something like Syria where a nonviolent opposition was met with extreme violence and then after trying to arm themselves they were asking for military aid and we’re like “America’s fucked up in the Middle East, America’s murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq. Let’s not even look at these people. Let’s pretend they don’t even exist.” And I think that there’s a legitimate debate about military aid and intervention.

Author and Western leftist David Mizner responded deftly to the original piece with ’For 3rd Anniversary of War in Syria, Molly Crabapple Turns Into a Liberal Hawk.’ He explains how Crabapple is refuting claims her subjects aren’t making to highlight her own empathy — those she condemns are not cheering the status quo, they are simply trying to prevent further horror. Continue reading “Empathy for empire”

Empathy for empire

On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness

Those of us who covered Chelsea Manning’s court martial at Ft. Meade relied on the drawings of artists in attendance to illustrate our coverage of witnesses testifying, dramatic proceedings, and vital courtroom moments. Debra van Poolen, one such artist, wrote about her experience here. I’ve thanked Debra in a piece explaining the value of her and others’ images, first published here at WARP Place. Relatedly, see artist Clark Stoeckley’s book-length graphic account of the trial here.


We are, increasingly, a visual people, overloaded with imagery at every turn. Thus the army’s (and administration’s) strategy to turn what should have been a trial available to the public for witness, conversation, and debate into a covert one made sense. No cameras, no cell phones, no computers in the courtroom. Metal detectors scanned our every inch for a hidden lens or wire. Uniformed muscles with weapons lined the walls, escorting us out to stretch our limbs and rest our eyes, watching, retrieving us. In the media room, a relaxed appearance betrayed an even more sinister crackdown on any attempt to publicize the show trial of U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning.

By and large, the mainstream media ignored the trial. We few reporters followed proceedings on a delayed video feed, that—just next door to the NSA, capable of spying on Americans’ every communication—was conveniently, annoyingly liable to cut out at any minute, for several at a time. So adverse was the Army to the public witnessing the immense, inexorable courage of a 5’2” soldier who stood head and shoulders above her fear-stricken fellow servicemen that when a few seconds of video did seep onto the world wide web, Ft. Meade soldiers with handguns were assigned to patrol the media room, their hot breath on our necks as we tried to transcribe extensive motions in real time. Continue reading “On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness”

On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness

Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review

On May 24, 2013, I reviewed Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks/Bradley Manning film ‘We Steal Secrets,’ focusing on its portrayal of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Read that review here. Alex Gibney wrote me a letter in response, reprinted in full below:

Dear Nathan:

I read your recent review of “We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks.”

I have great respect for the work that you have done and continue to do on behalf of Bradley Manning.  With that in mind, let me express my disagreement with a number of your assertions about my film.  I do not expect you to share my views, but I would hope that you hear them. Continue reading “Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review”

Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review

What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out

This review was first posted here on May 24, 2013

Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets” chronicles WikiLeaks’ front-page, world-shocking 2010 leaks from inception to publication to aftermath, framing WikiLeaks’ work as a meteoric rise giving way to a self-incurred implosion.

While I find fault with this view, and even its premise that WikiLeaks has failed and died (the site continues to publish Stratfor emails and Kissinger files, it just won an important Icelandic victory to resume accepting donations through Visa interlocutors, and the Freedom of the Press foundation continues to funnel anonymous contributions its way), I’d rather let others dissect its portrayal of Assange and WikiLeaks and instead focus on how it characterizes Bradley Manning. (Read WikiLeaks’ annotated copy of the film’s script here.)

Earlier this year, we took issue with some of director Alex Gibney’s comments associating whistleblowing with alienation, pathologizing Manning’s leaks and undermining his political values. Producer Sam Black emailed to assure us that, in fact, Bradley Manning is “a hero in the film. He is the moral and emotional center of a complex story about what should and should not be secret.”

Though the movie does laudably transition away from its opening focus on Julian Assange by reminding viewers that Manning is the courageous whistleblower who deserves at least as much public attention, Manning’s story only makes it into about a quarter of the two-hour film, which quotes journalists, former WikiLeaks members, high-ranking government officials, and fellow soldiers.

The time that is spent on Manning leaves much to be desired, and what it leaves out is as much to blame as what it includes. Ultimately, the resulting portrait of Bradley Manning is one of pity more than empathy, one that makes us feel bad for Manning rather than take a serious interest in his beliefs and his plight. Continue reading “What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out”

What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out

The United States cannot win its war on Chelsea Manning

By Russell Fuller

The United States cannot win its war on Bradley Manning. Though it sent a somewhat fragile young man off to war in Iraq, it produced instead a committed humanitarian; though it has caged him without trial for three years, one of them in torturous solitary confinement, it produced instead a fine, free spirit; though it brings its full weight to bear on a man who stands but five-foot two and tips the scales at one hundred and five pounds, it simply steeled his spine; though it restricts public access to pre-trial hearings and, in contradistinction to the First Amendment, threatens the meager group of gathered journalists and witnesses by stating today that access is not a right but a privilege, it produces instead a hunger for truth. Continue reading “The United States cannot win its war on Chelsea Manning”

The United States cannot win its war on Chelsea Manning

Bradley Manning’s torture hearing

Manning on the stand. Courtroom sketch by Clark Stoeckley.
Manning on the stand. Courtroom sketch by Clark Stoeckley.

Update: I’ve posted a lengthier summary of this hearing and Manning’s testimony here.

For the last three weeks in Ft. Meade, MD, Bradley Manning has had a pretrial motion hearing to seek accountability for the abusive treatment he endured at the Quantico Marine brig in Virginia, from July 29, 2010, to April 20, 2011. Manning was on Prevention of Injury watch (POI) or Suicide Watch his entire time in the brig, isolated in a 6×8 ft cell for 23 hours a day. For the first six months, he got only 20 minutes of sunshine a day. For the last month and a half, he had to surrender his underwear at night. For his entire time there, he was monitored around the clock, he had to ask for toilet paper and soap, and he had to wear metal shackles any time he left his cell. There weren’t detainees next to his cell, and when he left his cell the brig went in lockdown, so he was effectively barred from speaking to other inmates. And the military used his poor communication to justify his treatment.

About a dozen Quantico officials testified for several hours each to explain that Manning’s conditions were in his own interest: most said they thought he was going to kill himself because he made two nooses in prison in Kuwait — when he was left in a cage and no explained what was happening to him, he broke down. Yet Manning hasn’t hurt himself once at Ft. Leavenworth. Others said that because of the national security implications of Manning’s charges, and the fact that other detainees were “very patriotic,” that Manning was in danger of being attacked — they couldn’t explain, however, why he wasn’t put in protective custody (which has many fewer restrictions), or why he hasn’t been attacked while in medium security for a year and a half in Ft. Leavenworth.

This is painfully counterproductive. As professor Craig Haney — who defense lawyer David Coombs cited in court — told Congress:

Prisoners in long-term solitary confinement suffer psychological breakdowns from the lack of human contact that can lead to psychosis, mutilations, and suicide…

The military wouldn’t concede that Manning was held in solitary confinement. But in the portion Coombs quoted, Haney explains how prison officials use different terms to conceal these conditions:

I should acknowledge that the term “solitary confinement” is a term of art in corrections. Solitary or isolated confinement goes by a variety of names in U.S. prisons—Security Housing, Administrative Segregation, Close Management, High Security, Closed Cell Restriction, and so on. But the units all have in common the fact that the prisoners who are housed inside them are confined on average 23 hours a day in typically windowless or nearly windowless cells that commonly range in dimension from 60 to 80 square feet. The ones on the smaller side of this range are roughly the size of a king-sized bed, one that contains a bunk, a toilet and sink, and all of the prisoner’s worldly possessions. Thus, prisoners in solitary confinement sleep, eat, and defecate in their cells, in spaces that are no more than a few feet apart from one another…

Manning didn’t even get these “worldly possessions.” No matter what the military wants to call it, Manning was in solitary confinement.

The defense is moving to dismiss all charges based on this abusive treatment, based on the Article 13 prohibition against pretrial punishment. As an alternative, if the judge won’t through out the case, the defense requests at least 10-for-1 sentencing credit for the time Manning was in these conditions. Judge Lind is reviewing testimony and will probably rule in a few weeks. We return to court January 8-11, 2013.

There’s much more to unpack in each report, and I’d like to expound on how the chain of command ensured Manning never got out of solitary, but here for now are my summaries from the courtroom:

Day 1.
Day 2.
Day 3.
Day 4.
Day 5.
Day 6.
Day 7 & 8.
Day 9.
Day 10.
Day 11.

Bradley Manning’s torture hearing

Leniency for generals, jail time for whistleblowers

Or, the National Insecurity State

[Many thanks to Antiwar, Counterpunch, and Dissident Voice for running this piece first.]

General Petraeus and President Obama

It’s no secret that the powerful in America are frequently immune to prosecution for committing far worse crimes than those by the powerless. Bush administration torturers are on book tours while torture whistleblowers are on trial. Wall Street executives are counting their bonuses while foreclosed homeowners are packing their bags. Life’s not fair.

That’s one reason why it was so startling to see Gen. David Petraeus resign upon learning the FBI had discovered his extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. Surely, the director of the accountability-free, drone-happy CIA could sleep around as he pleased and not fear a fellow government agency would rat him out, right?

Ah, the unexpected pleasures of the ever-growing security state. It turns out the FBI found out that Petraeus shared more than a bed with Broadwell — likely his emails, rife with classified information, too, though he claims that Broadwell got the information from officials in Afghanistan. And this administration hates nothing more than the unintended release of classified information: despite anonymously leaking favorable-but-Top Secret information to The New York Times on a weekly basis, the Obama administration has tried to use the Espionage Act to convict whistleblowers more often than all previous administrations combined.

But not so fast. Gen. Petraeus is still their man, with a reputation to uphold. So when President Obama was asked about the potential security breach, he said, “I have no evidence at this point, from what I’ve seen, that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”

The statement is crafted to appear interested in the good of national security, to appear to put America’s safety first. But the subtext says much more: There may have been a classified disclosure that didn’t impact national security at all, or that did so positively, but that isn’t a problem.

These comments directly contradict government arguments in a much bigger ongoing investigation: that of WikiLeaks and Pfc. Bradley Manning. Cutting off Manning’s ability to argue that he was a whistleblower, who knew that the information WikiLeaks released wouldn’t bring harm to national security but instead would properly inform the American citizenry, the government prosecution has fully precluded discussion of whether or not WikiLeaks’ releases brought harm to national security from the trial. Even conceding that WikiLeaks’ release of hundreds of thousands of documents may not have harmed national security, the government says the effect is irrelevant to Manning’s guilt or innocence.

But Gen. Petraeus — or any of the other high-ranking officials who leak Top Secret information, a classification level higher than anything Pfc. Manning is accused of releasing — will not be held to this standard.

This is the chilling effect on whistleblowing: share classified information with a biographer selling books by glorifying your war-making, and your president assures the press that you’ve caused no harm; share crimes, uncounted civilian casualties, and corporate backroom dealing with your fellow taxpaying citizens, and you face a potential life sentence in prison, not to mention nine months of confinement abuse, an extensively delayed trial, and your president’s declaring you guilty before trial.

Time and again, Bradley Manning is stepped on so the military can discipline dissent and discourage those he might inspire. Meanwhile, the prurient press is more curious about Petraeus’s sex life than the growing security state and the whistleblowers trying in vain to stop it before it consumes us all. We cannot afford to abide this double standard any longer.

Leniency for generals, jail time for whistleblowers