12 April 2019

What Shall It Be -- Press Or Propaganda?

Whatever vestigial notions that a free press remained within the legacy media died this past week, as two seemingly unrelated stories combined to demonstrate the extent to which the legacy media is not free, and does not wish to be free.

The week began with Attorney General William Barr's much-heralded appearances before two Congressional committees, during which he uttered a simple sentence that has the legacy media positively epileptic and apoplectic: "I think spying did occur."

The "spying" to which he refers, of course, is the government surveillance of President Trump's 2016 campaign for office. Virtually the whole of the legacy media immediately and roundly excoriated Attorney General Barr for making a supposedly outlandish and unsubstantiated claim.

The second story of note occurred when Julian Assange, founder of the now famous (or infamous) disclosure web site WikiLeaks, was arrested in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, and now faces possible extradition to the United States, accused in relation to then-Bradley/now-Chelsea Manning's 2010 theft and disclosure of US military secrets.

Where these seemingly disconnected stories coincide is in the fertile fields of press freedom and press objectivity, and the degree to which these are inextricably intertwined.  

The consensus of the legacy media on Attorney General Barr's assessment that the US government spied on a political campaign during an election cycle is that Barr advanced a noxious "conspiracy theory". Chuck Todd of NBC News asserted there was "zero factual basis" for the claim. MSNBC's Nick Ackerman accused Bar of participating in a "White House coverup" of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report to the Attorney General regarding possible collusion between then-Candidate Donald Trump's election campaign and the Russian government. Over at CNN, Anderson Cooper pontificated that Barr's comments were "an insult to the men and women" of the Department of Justice.

Democrats in Congress quickly jumped on  the noveaux conspiracy theory bandwagon. Representative Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, insisted on Twitter that Barr was directly contradicting earlier DOJ testimonies:

Senator Mark Warner called Barr "irresponsible":
Senator Chuck Schumer panned Barr's comments "beneath the office of the Attorney General:

What both the legacy media and the Democrats overlook is the reality of government actions taken with regard to President Trump's 2016 campaign:
  • The FBI sought and received a warrant to conduct surveillance on one-time Trump campaign staffer Carter Page in October 2016.  That warrant is publicly available--its existence is a fact not open to dispute.
  • British-based academic Stephen Halper was recruited by elements of the FBI to gather information on both Carter Page and fellow campaign staffer George Papadapolous.
  • The infamous and much-derided "Steele Dossier" was compiled by a former British intelligence agent who was also an informant for the FBI.
  • None of these actions were known to the Trump campaign while they were ongoing.
None of these facts are in dispute.  Nor can anyone dispute the dictionary definition of the word "spy"
to watch secretly usually for hostile purposes
The United States government conducted secret surveillance on President Donald Trump.  There is no denying this. 

There is also no denying the fundamentally hostile intent of that surveillance. Any effort to find evidence of malfeasance by an individual is intrinsically hostile to that individual. The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution are constant reminders of the individual's need and right to defend himself or herself against the intrinsic hostility of any government investigation or accusation.

Yet the legacy media is denying both realities, with no hint of either irony or self-reflection.  To call Attorney General Barr's statement "conspiracy theory" is to completely ignore established empirical, factual, unimpeachable evidence of what the FBI did and when they did it. To call that statement a "cover-up" is to advance a narrative that is fundamentally and irreparably at odds with reality, so much so that words such as "delusional" are fitting descriptors of media behavior.

The United States government spied on Donald Trump. Arguing otherwise is an unconvincing exercise in pure propaganda.

It is against this backdrop of a lunatic legacy media peddling propaganda that we must now consider the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange immediately after having his asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy in London revoked.

Assange's immediate arrest was in relation to a 2012 sexual assault charge against him in Sweden. He took refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition from the UK to Sweden to stand trial for that offense.

However, the United States government has also long wanted to prosecute Assange for his role in publishing the reams of classified documents stolen by then-Bradley/now-Chelsea Manning in 2010--military secrets which some claim exposed intelligence gathering sources and methods, the disclosure of which arguably put lives directly at risk.  Following Assange's arrest by the London police, the United States revealed indictments against him charging conspiracy with Manning in the 2010 data breach and publication.  Assange, the US government has argued, in equally complicit and equally guilty as Manning is regarding the latter's demonstrable criminal activity.

As with Barr's "spying" comments, there are certain empirical factual realities attached to Assange's arrest:

  • Manning was convicted by court martial for espionage and theft for stealing classified military documents 
  • Manning has acknowledged transmitting them to WikiLeaks, which published much of the material, which is still online, and for which WikiLeaks has established custom searches to facilitate browsing of certain subsets of the material, such as the Afghan War Diaries.
  • The DOJ has alleged in its indictment that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks assisted Manning by cracking certain encrypted passwords. 
  • The DOJ also alleges that Assange encouraged Manning to obtain more classified materials for publication.  It is worth noting that Manning's statements regarding his submissions to WikiLeaks do not provide any direct confirmation of these allegations.
The American Civil Liberties Union has condemned Assange's arrest, stating "..prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent...." Indeed, the central point of opposition to Assange's indictment is that WikiLeaks is a publisher, and that their disclosures of government secrets is, arguably, a form of journalism.

No less a legal authority than Harvard Law Professor-Emeritus Alan Dershowitz has argued that WikiLeaks is a publishing organization no different from the New York Times and the Washington Post. These newspapers published the archive of classified military secrets known as "The Pentagon Papers" in 1971--not only were they never charged with a crime, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. 

The New York Times in 2016 also published excerpts of Donald Trump's tax returns for 1995. Tax returns are privileged and confidential, and whomever provided the documents to the Times unquestionably obtained them illegally.  The New York Times was not charged with a crime in that incident either, and at least one legal scholar argued that its publication of illegally obtained tax records could not be prosecuted under the First Amendment.

The DOJ case is further convoluted by the fact that the standard federal statute of limitations is 5 years, and this indictment is presented well outside of that time frame. According to Andrew McCarthy, writing in the National Review, the government appears to be relying on an exemption to the five-year rule for terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, which extends the statute to eight years--which in turn requires making a solid legal case that Julian Assange is, in fact, a terrorist and not a journalist, and that WikiLeaks is, in fact, a terrorist organization and not a publisher.

The legacy media has been quite content to indulge the government in advancing this argument, and to give preferential audience to those public figures willing to champion this argument.  Some even found Assange's arrest an occasion for sarcasm and levity.  The consensus of the legacy media, with few exceptions outside of Fox News' Tucker Carlson, is that Julian Assange is getting his comeuppance.

Yet what makes WikiLeaks a publisher (and Assange therefore a journalist) is the inescapable reality that it publishes information--just like the New York Times, and just like the Washington Post. Just as the New York Times was not prosecuted for the Pentagon Papers, WikiLeaks should not be prosecuted for Manning's stolen files. To consider otherwise is to grant the government a license that is not specified within the Constitution or any amendment--the power to effectively license media outlets. To consider otherwise is to eliminate the First Amendment protections upon which freedom of the press depends.

WikiLeaks is a news publisher, and its contributors are journalists. No government gets to say otherwise. No government should say otherwise.

This much is certain: government-sanctioned press is not free press.  Media outlets that must seek the approval of the State cannot possibly hold that State to any form of account. It requires no deep training in the law to understand this reality, and to understand the dangers it poses to the freedom and liberty that are this nation's bequest to future generations.

So it is that we close this second week of April, 2019, with one of the most cherished of American institutions--a free and unfettered press, able to hold government to account and not be held accountable to government--under existential threat from within and without.  In denying the simple reality that government agencies can and have spied on US citizens, the legacy media, long the embodiment of the free and unfettered press, has abandoned that position entirely. In denying the simple reality that WikiLeaks is a publisher of information, legacy media has declared there shall be no more free press, but only government sanctioned press.

So it is that we, as a society, must look ever more critically at all the media, both the legacy entities and the upstart alternative outlets, and decide which ones will be the path for journalism in this country in the future.  Will we have a free and unfettered press, powered by a disruptive coterie of independent media sources, or will we have a corporatized and compromised press, residing within the legacy media, content to promote only such narratives as find favor with the blessed few? Will we have rich sources of useful information, or will we have pathetic purveyors of pabulum and propaganda? 

What shall it be: press or propaganda? Sadly, the answer is not at the moment certain.

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