Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pentagon Papers Redux

The other day, I voted in a Time magazine online poll for Julian Assange as my choice for the magazine’s annual “Person of the Year.” (He’s currently in the lead. The other nominees are predictably boring: Lady Gaga, Glen Beck, Stewart and Colbert and that damn Facebook creator.)

Time’s brief blurb calls Assange, “a new kind of whistle-blower: One made for the digital age.”

The co-founder is currently being held in British custody, having turned himself in for questioning regarding allegations of rape and sexual misconduct by two Swedish women. There is now speculation the U.S. government will attempt to extradite him, and try him under the Espionage Act for his website’s recent disclosure of over 250,000 classified U.S. military documents.

Of course, White House officials and elite opinion makers wasted no time in denouncing WikiLeaks’ actions. Upon hearing of Assange’s arrest, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates quipped, “Sounds like good news to me.”

The more extreme members of the Right ratcheted the rhetoric even further. Incoming Republican Congressman Peter King wants WikiLeaks to be designated a “terrorist organization,” while Fox News host, Bob Beckel has called for Assange’s assassination.

For his own part, Assange describes himself as a journalist. He told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman earlier this summer, “We have clearly stated motives, but they are not anti-war motives… We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government.” (Democracy Now!, July 28, 2010.)

The attacks on Assange are hardly surprising. This tactic of shooting the messenger, while ignoring the message is the same one conservatives employ on the issue of global-warming. (The Right lodges personal attacks against Al Gore, for instance, yet ignore all the science, facts and empirical evidence of his warnings on climate-change.)

As Congressman Ron Paul points out in a recent radio message to supporters, “At its core, the WikiLeaks controversy serves as a diversion from what our foreign policy should be. But the mainstream media, along with neoconservatives in both parties insists on asking the wrong questions. When presented with embarrassing disclosures about U.S. spying and meddling, the policy that requires so much spying and meddling is not questioned.”

Indeed, it seems Americans should be more upset about the recent disclosures of covert U.S. activity WikiLeaks has disclosed—including the U.S. military’s pressure on Iraqi soldiers to cover-up instances of torture during the Iraq war. Instead, the media focuses exclusively on Assange himself, painting him as a sort of cyber-terrorist, and recklessly endangering U.S. military endeavors. Consider the irony of the Obama administration’s Justice Department drafting a criminal case against Assange and WikiLeaks, while it has to date refused to bring similar charges against members of the previous administration for authorizing torture and other heinous, un-constitutional crimes.

According to Daniel Ellsberg, the media launched the same sort of attack on him when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press some forty years ago. (If Ellsberg was never publicly called a “terrorist” at the time, it was only because the post-9/11 derogatory term was not as thoroughly embedded in the political vernacular as it is today.)

Ellsberg was a military analyst for the RAND Corporation during the height of the Vietnam War. When an epiphany of anti-war sentiment caused him to re-think his involvement in the war, Ellsberg stole the massive collection of classified CIA documents chronicling the United States’ Vietnam War plans known as the “Pentagon Papers” and sent them to the New York Times.

(Ellsberg’s story was recently chronicled in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s superb documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America.)

The Pentagon Papers detailed, amongst other revelatory insights that the United States’ Vietnam policy had been in place as early as 1945. The documents’ authors were also surprisingly candid in their bleak assessment of the prospects for military success in Vietnam. One chart, drafted long after the war was underway, conceded U.S. persistence in Vietnam was driven:

“70 percent to avoid a humiliating defeat.
- 20 percent to prevent South Vietnam from [falling into] Chinese hands.
- 10 percent to help the [people of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.”

The writers went out of their way to note the war was not being fought to “help a friend.”

The New York Times began publishing the documents on June 13, 1971. In retaliation, the Nixon administration sued the Times, insisting the paper cease publication of the documents immediately. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court shortly thereafter.

In the ensuing legal battle, “New York Times Co. v. U.S. Government (403 U.S. 713),” the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the Times and Ellsberg. The Court deemed the Nixon White House had failed to meet the heavy “burden of proof” to demonstrate the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers had caused a significant threat to security. (The case is considered one of the hallmark First Amendment decisions, intricately linked with freedom of the press.)

In his passionate majority opinion statement, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

“I believe that every moment’s continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment… Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.”

Justice Potter Stewart concurred, adding, “In absence of governmental checks and balances, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power may lie in an enlightened citizenry—in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.”

It should come as little surprise then, that Ellsberg has emerged as one of the strongest supporters of both Assange and the imprisoned PFC Bradley Manning—widely believed to be the original source of WikiLeaks’ extensive military files.

Regardless of what one personally thinks of Julian Assange’s actions, there is little doubt he has done more to promote freedom of information, freedom of the press and democracy than anybody else on Time’s “People of the Year” list. And for that reason alone he deserves both our praise and support.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Slouching Towards Oblivion

Why the Internet will not save newspapers.

On my way to the local convenience store the other day to grab my daily copy of the New York Times, I was disappointed to find the owner has discontinued his newspaper sales. He became fed up, he explained to me, with the unreliable delivery service, which was often late, or left the newspapers outside in the pouring rain.

Mostly though, he was tired of being left with too many papers at the end of the day. Nobody—other than me, he pointed out sardonically—was buying them.

Such seems to be the unfortunate case for newspapers nationwide. The displacement of physical newspapers by the Internet, a major loss of advertising dollars at national and local papers, and a general lack of interest among young, digitally-oriented readers all seem to have combined to sound the death knell for the newspaper industry.

Authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism are blunt in their assessment of the situation. “Newspapers, as we have known them, are disintegrating and are possibly on the verge of extinction,” they state in the first chapter. “Media corporations,” the authors continue, “after running journalism into the ground, have determined that news gathering and reporting are not profit-making propositions. So they’re jumping ship.”

The depressing numbers bear this out. Last year, the Los Angeles Times cut 300 editorial and staff writer jobs. The Miami Herald cut 205; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 156; Kansas City Star, 150; Sacramento Bee, 128 and 100 jobs were cut at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, larger newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer have filed for bankruptcy. And the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle are losing $1 million a week. They have threatened to shut the paper down.

Times’ columnist, Maureen Dowd sums up newspapers’ predicament in an Op-Ed titled, “Slouching Towards Oblivion.” (New York Times, April 25, 2009)

“Now that everybody can check their iPhones and laptops for news that personally interests them,” Dowd writes, “now that they can Google, blog and tweet… old-school newspapers seem like aging silent film stars, stricken to find themselves outmoded by technology.”

While conventional wisdom suggests news will simply migrate online, and that we should not mourn the loss of “antiques” like newspapers, the prospects for original, quality journalism surviving (never mind thriving) online remain dubious. As usual, there are a number of factors most who favor the conversion of news to the Internet have neglected to consider.

When it comes to the print vs. digital debate, it is worth keeping in mind Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism that, “The medium is the message.”

The celebrated media scholar and theorist first made this observation in 1964’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. There he argues it is the medium itself—not its content—that deserves attention. In other words, it is the new environments and societal changes a new medium or technology (print, radio, television, etc.) brings about that is significant. The medium’s particular content or “message,” McLuhan argues, is irrelevant.

He writes:

“…the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and it is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium.”

(With regard to a medium’s content, McLuhan famously proclaimed it made little difference if television networks aired educational programs or violent broadcasts. TV’s overall societal effect, he believed, would largely remain the same. “In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves,” McLuhan states in Understanding Media, “it mattered not in the least whether it turned our cornflakes or Cadillacs.”)

The Internet, then, is no different. Indeed, it has already been established we do not read online content the same way we would a book or newspaper article. In general, online users do not read text for comprehension so much as they rapidly scan it for information. According to a study by usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, the eye actually moves across a computer screen differently than it does a printed page—what Nielsen refers to as the “F-Shaped Pattern.”

(Nielsen also claims online readers are turned off by lengthy articles and long paragraphs of text, which may explain why this blog receives so few comments...)

An article in Slate on Nielsen’s findings (June 13, 2008) notes, “…given all the factors that can affect online reading, such as scrolling, font size, user expertise… Nielsen holds that on-screen reading is 25 percent slower than reading on paper.” In other words, if you truly want to understand that lengthy AP story on the latest WikiLeaks cable, you would be better off printing the article out and reading it.

This is, perhaps, the greatest loss in transferring news-print to the Internet: The loss of the time and patience necessary to truly understand the events and issues of the day. Short bursts of news online may give readers a basic idea of what happened. But it will not give them the whole story.

And that, I fear, is what will become of newspaper journalism if the industry is forced to migrate online.

As McLuhan presciently observed, “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

Artist Jenny Holzer brings poems of Szymborska to Portland

Last night, New York conceptual artist Jenny Holzer projected the poems of Wislawa Szymborska onto the surface of the Portland Museum of Art, on Congress Street. Holzer has traveled around the world doing just this, using various brick building landscapes as her canvas for showcasing works of social justice. She titled last night's free poetry-projection event, "For Portland."

Szymborska is a Nobel-Prize winning poet from Poland, whose socially conscious work has frequently been adopted by peace and justice activists. Her poem "Torture" was one of the featured works projected onto the museum.

The poem reads as follows:

Torture by Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is painful,
it must eat, breathe air and sleep,
it has thin skin, with blood right beneath,
it has a goodly supply of teeth and nails
its bones are brittle, its joints extensible.
In torture, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body trembles, as it trembled
before and after the founding of Rome,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ. Torture is, as it's always been, only the earth has shrunk, and whatever happens, feels like it happens next door.

Nothing has changed. Only there are more people,
next to old transgressions, new ones have appeared
real, alleged, momentary, none,
but the scream, the body's response to them-- was, is, and always will be the scream of innocence, in accord with the age-old scale and register.

Nothing has changed.
Except maybe manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the gesture of arms shielding the head
has remained the same.
The body writhes, struggles, and tries to break away.
Bowled over, it falls, pulls in its knees,
bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the courses of rivers,
the contours of forests, seashores, deserts and icebergs.
Among these landscapes the poor soul winds,
vanishes, returns, approaches, recedes.
A stranger to itself, evasive,
at one moment sure, the next unsure of its existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place to go.