Thursday, April 28, 2011


Web 2.0 has witnessed the rise of citizen journalism and a brand of publishing that reminds me of the wild, wild West, compared to the staid publications of the East Coast with their European sensibilities and, as Norman Mailer put it, their "bloodless, gutless restraint. "

Cyberspace tends to be combative and ideological. And Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, is one of the most combative and ideological publishers on the web. Assange and the leaked documents and videos he has published are now at the red hot center of the battle to control the flow of information over the world wide web. Although Assange is not the first publisher to make government documents available to the public, his publication of gun camera videos and U.S. Department of State cables is massive, both in terms of its sheer volume and in terms of its buzz. And it is the only leak around right now. In my view, there is nothing on WikiLeaks as sensational as the Abu Ghraib photos, and, in fact, nothing as shocking as some of the videos that have been up on YouTube since the start of the Iraq occupation, but Assange has made the leaks personal and part of a private war with the U.S. government. He has given the publication of leaks a human face. He has become the center of attention. That's too bad. Because it may be too hot at the center for Assange.

When I first saw the gun camera video Assange published, I was struck by the fact that the gunship was adhering to General Petraeus' regrettable rules of engagement for Baghdad. The rules should have been stricter, but at least they prevented the gunships from finishing off the wounded the way this gunship did.

This kind of video, depicting the actual murder of a wounded insurgent, has been available on YouTube for years, along with countless home videos put up there -- self-published, if you will -- by American soldiers and Marines, and also by insurgents. Most of the insurgent videos seem to have been removed quietly over the years on the grounds that they violate YouTube's terms of service. I say "quietly" because YouTube, a publisher whose significance dwarfs the personal soap opera of Assange and WikiLeaks, has never identified itself as a publisher with an ax to grind. In fact, YouTube doesn't pretend to be a publisher at all. Putatively, they are simply providing a forum for the free exchange of information. Therein, it seems to me, lies YouTube's safety, if not legally -- and I don't pretend to understand the legal issues around the free flow of information -- at least morally. For YouTube does not notice us -- unless we draw attention to one another. They have adopted at least the appearance of ignorance and neutrality. Assange has not.

Assange has, in fact, made quite a big deal out of knowing exactly what he's publishing. He has probably been led down that path by the establishment press who are very high on "responsibility" and insist on things like verifying sources, redacting classified information, and making a determination about whether the public's right to know outweighs the danger of exposing operators and operations. Having consented to work with the establishment in making those judgments, Assange has exposed himself to the moral, if not the legal, responsibility to get it right.

I suspect that is something Julian Assange is poorly equipped to do.

(Update. 3/24/2019. YouTube removed the video of an American gunship murdering a wounded insurgent.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is Julian Assange A Journalist?

Both sides of the WikiLeaks debate seem determined to misrepresent the issues in the Assange drama by hotly arguing over whether Assange is a journalist or not. Of course he isn’t. Assange is a publisher, and he’s entitled to the same protections — no more and no less – as any other publisher.

File this under topics for further research.

Do journalists have better or worse protections under the U.S. Constitution than publishers have? Are they held to different standards? Do people respect journalists more than they respect publishers? Who raised the issue of whether Assange is a journalist in the first place? Does being perceived as a journalist help or hurt Assange?

And what, if anything, do the charges a Swedish prosecutor — a woman who has a long history of prosecuting sex abuse and child abuse — wants to question Assange about have to do with WikiLeaks? For the record, I don’t think the charges have much to with the WikiLeaks drama at all. Sex shouldn’t be a death-defying act. If Assange did what the two women have accused him of doing — if he exposed them to the risk of AIDS by forcing them to have unprotected sex – he committed a crime under Swedish law. That doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to protection as a publisher when he publishes government tapes and documents.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I've lost interest in the news.  The world wide web in general has become a collossal bore.  I was already starting to lose interest in the web sites I had developed the habit of visiting every day, when, suddenly, The New York Times fell apart.  Following current events seems so meaningless now, even as a spectator sport.  I feel like I'm bringing the plants and lawn furniture in for the winter, just when I should be putting them outside.  Sigh.

Spring has been a long time coming to the shores of Lake Michigan this year.

Following the YouTube links from It Might As Well Be Spring, I noticed that Dana Andrews was in the film. Andrews made some good films, including Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives. Sometimes I think my obsession with the auteur theory has caused me to underestimate the contribution actors make to films. Maybe they contribute more to the mise en scene than I've given them credit for. I've always thought Andrews would have made a great Phillip Marlowe.

As of this morning, there are 1,223 documentary films available to view instantly on Netflix (and many, many more available by mail.) I can't imagine being able to make a list of 1,223 things worth documenting, but I suppose it only took 1,223 people who were able to raise some cash to make a documentary to produce that body of work. Everybody does a little, nobody does a lot. The last documentary I watched was The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a strange little film I played out of curiosity about the similarities (and differences) between Ellsberg, who was on a first name basis with Henry Kissinger, and Private Bradley Manning.

The government is going to risk holding Private Manning in "medium security" at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while he awaits trial. The military has concluded that Manning is no longer a danger to himself or anyone else, and that he's not likely to be harmed by guards or other prisoners before he's tried. If the Obama administration is wrong about that, they will have a mess to clean up in the middle of a political campaign. Personally, I hope Manning is no longer in danger because he's cut a deal and given the government Assange.

The first page of the Netflix documentary list includes Modify, an 84 minute film about "branding, piercing, tattooing, tongue splitting and every body modification imaginable." The blurb says Modify has "an original soundtrack featuring more than 20 new musical artists." Might be worth a look for somebody, though probably not for me. I couldn't even sit through Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS the last time I tried to watch it, and they don't even cut anyone for real.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bradley Manning Makes The Big Time

The Associated Press is reporting that the Army will move Pfc. Bradley Manning from Quantico to Leavenworth soon. According to the Army, Private Manning will be jailed in the medium security facility at Leavenworth while he awaits trial, because the interview to determine his competency to stand trial has been completed. (Does that mean Army interrogaters have what they need from Manning, or that they've given up on getting him to implicate Julian Assange in the theft of Pentagon and State Department secrets?)

Manning's new cell opens on to a common area where he can mingle with other "pretrial confines."

If Manning is convicted, it will be a short walk to his permanent home. The military's maximum security prison is located at Fort Leavenworth, too. If he graduates to the maximum security block at Leavenworth, Manning will join William Calley, Hasan Akbar and Charles Graner, a guard convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. That prospect may have influenced the information he provided Army investigators.

Or maybe Manning's interrogation is still going on, and the Army wants him to get a good look at where he could end up if he doesn't cooperate.

Either way, Manning's move might mean big trouble for Assange. It is definitely a thumb in the eye for the blogosphere personalities who have been milking Manning's pretrial confinement. They are already complaining about the improvement in Manning's confinement conditions they so desperately sought. Kansas is a long way from Washington, D.C., where most of the "nattering nabobs" hang out.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bad News For Bradley Manning

I finally got around to watching The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) last weekend, and I think Ellsberg's story is full of bad news for Bradley Manning, the young soldier accused of stealing secret files from the Department of Defense and the State Department.

Since he copied the Pentagon Papers and distributed them to the press in 1971, Ellsberg has continued to be a prominent figure in the chronic anti-war movement that periodically obsesses American Progressives. No question he's sincere. But I can't help thinking he should wear a t-shirt that says something like: Don't try this at home, kids.

Unlike Private Manning, Ellsberg wasn't in the military when he stole the Pentagon Papers from the Rand Corporation. He was a prominent defense analyst, on a first name basis with people like Henry Kissinger and editors and reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Ellsberg was charged with and tried for espionage. He faced life in prison, but he beat the rap. What was his pre-trial confinement like? There wasn't any. After his arrest, Ellsberg was released on his own recognizance.

The very bad news for Private Manning and his supporters is that, while the Supreme Court upheld the right of the New York Times and other newspapers to publish The Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg's acquittal had nothing to do with either the facts of his case or with the Constitution, beyond his right to a fair trial.

Ellsberg was acquitted when his judge declared a mistrial after Nixon blatantly tried to interfere with the trial and the judge concluded Nixon had made it impossible for Ellsberg to get a fair trial anywhere in America. Nixon ticked the judge off, and the judge let Ellsberg go.

The Obama administration is not likely to make that mistake.

Private Manning's conviction by a military court is a foregone conclusion. The only question now is whether or not the military will be able to get Manning to flip on Julian Assange. My guess is that when his trial date approaches and he figures out he's not Ellsberg after all, Manning will cooperate.

The film itself is a strange mishmash of historical and contemporary interviews, news footage and excerpts from the Nixon tapes. My favorite moment is an audio clip of Richard Nixon, urging Kissinger to think outside the box and support a plan to nuke Hanoi.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) is available from Netflix.