WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange was evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and tossed into the hands of British security forces who plan to extradite him to the United States. Amazingly, many American journalists thought this was a very good idea and couldn’t possibly see how they might be next.
What is the job of the news media? To report the news. Everyone agrees about that. But some well-intentioned self-imposed ethical guidelines that members of the news media take for granted are getting in the way of the industry’s fundamental mission: telling everything they know to a public whose right to know is sacred.
You know journalists have lost their way when they cheer the arrest and potential extradition to the U.S. of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. Any of us could be next; we should be circling the wagons. Yet they insist on focusing on such inanities as Assange’s personality, his “arrogance,” even his cat. Some even approve.
The other day NPR’s “Morning Edition” covered the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Everyone over age 40 remembers what happened: suffering from depression, chronic pain and opiate addiction, the singer put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off.
It’s one of the most famous suicides ever. NPR chose to be coy about it, mostly referring to Cobain’s “death” rather than his “suicide.”
Airbrushing well-known reality is silly. But, like most American media outlets, NPR was merely following the World Health Organization’s published guidelines on covering suicide. According to experts news accounts of suicide can feed a phenomenon called “suicide contagion” wherein people in emotional crisis are inspired by stories to see taking their own lives as a solution to their problems. As Time magazine wrote recently, “the more vivid the depiction of a death… the more it may contribute to suicide contagion.” Editors and producers are encouraged to avoid detailed descriptions of how victims of suicide did it, what their last note said, etc.
Reducing the suicide rate is a laudable goal. But journalists’ job is to report and analyze the news, not to reduce mortality. What’s next, refusing to mention hamburgers in the news because they contribute to arteriosclerosis? Cars because they kill people (and in vast numbers)? While we’re at it let’s censor war correspondence on the grounds that battle stories glorify militarism and thus prompt more wars!
Lying to readers is the worst sin a newspaper can commit. That includes lies of omission: readers pay for and have every right to expect the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from a product that promises exactly that. Playing cute by omitting important, relevant facts from the news, as in the Cobain story, seriously undermines the media’s credibility. That goes double when listeners and viewers know what really happened and realize they’re being treated like children by self-appointed nannies.
Moreover, self-censorship can destroy a story. Cobain’s death by suicide was a shocking where-were-you moment and a defining cultural experience for Generation X. I don’t see how Millennials could understand that from the NPR account. It wasn’t merely the fact that the lead singer of Nirvana had died. The way he died was central.
Another way the media loses credibility while trying to do the right thing is adhering to the widely accepted belief among corporate news outlets that they are somehow responsible for protecting national security. When the press receives classified government materials from a leaker or whistleblower they often contact the relevant agency to authenticate the documents and/or to allow them to suggest redactions. If you watched “The Post” you saw the Washington Post contact the Nixon Administration to give the White House a chance to argue why they shouldn’t publish the Pentagon Papers.
Media outlets like The Guardian and the New York Times shared the Edward Snowden files with the NSA and CIA so they could expunge information like the names of undercover intelligence operatives and suggest redactions. Even The Intercept (formerly a left-leaning media group) did this, to grievous effect: they foolishly shared leaked CIA documents with the feds, who used their analysis to track a whistleblower named Reality Winner. She is in prison.
During the Gulf War Geraldo Rivera got in trouble for drawing a map showing troop movements in the sand. The Pentagon threw him out of Iraq and many reporters agreed.
They were wrong. Journalists are not government employees. They’re solely responsible to news consumers, not the military or intelligence agencies who failed to safeguard their own secrets. Why shouldn’t a reporter report what they know, whatever they find out, whatever it is, if it’s news—no matter how sensitive? If the New York Times had gotten the D-Day plans a week ahead of time, they didn’t owe the War Department a phone call. They should have published, consequences be damned.
As the D-day example shows, respecting the public’s right to know is hard. Good people can die as a result. Wars may be lost. But for someone dedicated to journalism it’s an easy call. Either you’re a journalist or you’re nothing more than a low-rent liar and propagandist for the government.
Self-censorship often takes the form of policing newsworthy content for tastefulness. After Vice President Dick Cheney told a senator—on the floor of the senate!—to go have sex with himself, respectable media organizations dashed out the f— or otherwise danced around the nefarious fricative (as I am doing here because this column is syndicated). So dumb.
Everyone knows what Cheney said. No one could deny it was news. So print it.
Then there are the “tasteless” photos that are routinely withheld from printed pages and TV screens in the United States: sexual images like Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and gruesome pictures of crime victims. America’s namby-pambyness is an outlier. In Latin America, photos of 9/11 jumpers ran on the front pages of major newspapers. But in the U.S., seventeen years later, the images are still scrubbed from public view. Even a sculpture based on those photos was removed from public viewing as too controversial.
It’s not like we don’t know these images exist. We saw them in live coverage on 9/11. Those who didn’t watch them then have heard about it. The media has decided that we’re too sensitive to see our own history. Even if you agree with their editorial decision, doesn’t it make you wonder what else they’re keeping from us?
Images of 9/11 jumpers underscored the horror of the day. Censorship doesn’t respect the dead. It whitewashes their agony.
The counterfactual argument, like airing ISIS snuff videos that might encourage the creation of more such imagery, is powerful. Even with such disgusting material, though, we should err on the side of the news and the public’s right to know. The alternative, the nanny media we have now, cannot be trusted and feeds into the demagogic framing of “fake news.”
(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
First, I have to be clear. I admire Julian Assange. I value WikiLeaks. A lot. He has performed a valuable service to the world.
So why is he acting like a goddamn idiot?
Of all the times to release the hacked Podesta emails, why Friday – the classic media dump day? And why the same Friday when Donald Trump’s gross woman-groping tape is the obsession of the global media?
As the BBC says: “In some alternate universe, the Clinton Wikileaks story would be dominating the news this weekend, as pundits and analysts speculate on whether the revelations could tilt the election to Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or even Ted Cruz.”
It’s almost like he wants them to be washed away in a tsunami of distraction.
Obviously, Donald Trump is in big trouble, and he deserves to be. Of course, there’s nothing new here. Everyone knew that he was a sexist misogynist pig. Everyone knew that he objectified women beyond the norms of a male locker room. This audio has the effect of making all the stuff that he has said, and all the stuff that his accusers have said, feel and seem more real. But it sure ain’t new.
The Hillary Clinton hacks aren’t really new either, but they do shine a brighter light than the media has been generally willing to do on the fact that she is a total suck-up to Wall Street, that she is a free-trade purist who doesn’t care about American jobs, that she’ll always be part of the 1% and never one of us. This is stuff that pretty much everyone who has been paying attention already knew all along, of course. But it really goes to confirm the Bernie Sanders narrative during the primaries, as well as put a spotlight on the fact that Hillary Clinton was never going to be a good Democratic nominee.
If things go the way that they currently look like they’re going to go – Trump steps aside, Pence steps in – we’re really going to see that. My guess is that the Bland from Indiana will defeat Hillary Clinton. What if it goes the other way? What if Trump stays in the race and loses, or leaves and Pence loses?
Then Hillary Clinton becomes president of the United States without the American people having any clue about what kind of person she is or what kind of policies she generally espouses. That didn’t need to be the case.
Julian, say it ain’t so!
Or that there’s more.
Orwell’s Nightmares Come True — But Who Cares?
Another horror no one will care about: the government is spying on your snail mail.
The New York Times timed the release of the story so that it would come and go without notice: on the Fourth of July, when no one reads the paper or watches the news. But buried beneath a puffy lede is yet another privacy-killing whopper. After 9/11, the Times reports, the U.S. Postal Service created something called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) program, “in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.”
Just a wild guess? How about: forever?
“Together,” the paper continued, “the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.” Any government agency — the FBI, local police, etc. — can request mail cover data. As with the rubber-stamp “FISA court,” the USPS almost always says yes to these outrageous mass violations of privacy.
From George Orwell’s “1984”: “As for sending a letter through the mails, it was out of the question. By a routine that was not even secret, all letters were opened in transit.”
“It’s a treasure trove of information,” the Times quotes former FBI agent James Wedick. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.” Your finances. Your politics. Your friends.
No doubt about it, the dystopian vision laid out by George Orwell in “1984” is here.
Thanks to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, we’ve learned about the previously top-secret PRISM program, in which the U.S. government “collects the e-mail, voice, text and video chats” of every American to be stored in a $2 billion data farm in Utah, as well as sweeping telephone surveillance by Verizon and other telecommunications companies on behalf of the NSA. According to NBC News and other sources, “every single phone call made in the U.S. has been monitored by the U.S. government.” And not, merely, as President Obama and his media shills keep saying, “just” (!) the metadata. Under ECHELON, they listen in to “all telephone, fax and data traffic,” record it, and store it.
From “1984”: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”
Yes they can.
The dominant eavesdropping technology in “1984” was a device called the “telescreen.” Installed in every home and workplace as an outlet for government propaganda, Orwell’s telescreen “received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.”
Which sounds a lot like the creepy new two-way TV — you watch it and it watches you — for which Verizon filed a patent application in 2011. This TV would target “ads to viewers based on information collected from infrared cameras and microphones that would be able to detect conversations, people, objects and even animals that are near a TV. If the detection system determines that a couple is arguing, a service provider would be able to send an ad for marriage counseling to a TV or mobile device in the room,” reported the blog Fierce Cable. “If the couple utters words that indicate they are cuddling, they would receive ads for ‘a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers,’ or commercials for romantic movies, Verizon states in the patent application.”
Verizon’s patent was denied. But now Google TV is going for it. The technology exists; it’s only a matter of time before it finds its way into our homes. Anti-privacy tech types point out it’s only to make ads more effective — the same way web ads react to your searching and browsing. But that’s just for now. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the NSA, FBI or other crazy spook outfit tapping into America’s telescreens in order to watch us in our living rooms and bedrooms.
Gotta stop the terrorists! Whatever it takes.
Ah, the terrorists. The enemies of the state. Bush had his Osama; Obama has Snowden. Bugaboos keep us distracted, fearful, compliant. “The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again,” the government official goon O’Brien lectures Winston Smith in “1984.” “The espionage, the betrayals, the arrests, the tortures, the executions, the disappearances will never cease.”
Governments rule over the governed either by obtaining their tacit consent, or by crushing potential opponents by making them afraid to speak up. Option two is where we are now.
One horror follows another. At Guantánamo concentration camp, where les misérables of America’s War of Terror languish for year after year, uncharged with any crime, U.S. government goons announced that they will continue to force-feed more than 100 hunger strikers during Ramadan, a month-long holiday when devout Muslims are required to fast. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy in London because he fears extradition to and execution by the U.S.; Ecuador has discovered that some Western intelligence agency planted a bug to watch him. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden has been de facto stripped of his U.S. citizenship, his passport canceled, rendering him effectively stateless. Meanwhile, the megacriminals he exposed — Obama and his cronies — are living large.
Assange and Snowden are no longer important. They’ve done all the damage they can do. But the U.S. will never leave them, or any other enemy of the state, alone. It’s about terrifying potential political opponents into submission.
“Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us. No one who has once gone astray is ever spared,” O’Brien tells Winston. “We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”
Enjoy your barbecue.
(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
The Conspiracy to Abolish Cash
For many years figures on the political fringe, especially on the right, have claimed that the government and its corporate owners want to transform us into a cashless society. Their warnings about the conspiracy against paper money fell on deaf ears, primarily because the digitalization of financial transactions seemed more like the result of organic business trends than the manifestation of some sinister conspiracy.
Now, however, those who want to do away with liquid currency are stepping out of the shadows. They talk about increased efficiency and profit potential, but their real agenda is nothing less than enslavement of the human race.
“Physical currency is a bulky, germ-smeared, carbon-intensive, expensive medium of exchange. Let’s dump it,” argued David Wolman in Wired.
Citing a 2002 study for the Organization for Economic Development that states “money’s destiny is to become digital, ” a Defense Department-affiliated economics professor has authored an Op/Ed for The New York Times that asks: “Why not eliminate the use of physical cash worldwide?” Jonathan Lipow urges President Obama to “push for an international agreement to eliminate the largest-denomination bills” and urges the replacement of bills and coins by “smart cards with biometric security features.”
Lipow’s justification for calling for the most radical change to the fundamental nature of commerce since industrialization is, of all things, fighting terrorism. “In a cashless economy, insurgents’ and terrorists’ electronic payments would generate audit trails that could be screened by data mining software; every payment and transfer would yield a treasure trove of information about their agents, their locations and their intentions,” Lipow writes. “This would pose similar challenges for criminals.”
Terrorism is a mere fig leaf. According to the annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report compiled by the U.S. State Department, the highest total death toll attributed to terrorism in the last 20 years occurred in—surprise—2001. Including 9/11, only 3,547 people were killed in 346 acts of violence worldwide. Tragic. Obviously. But, in the overall scheme of things, terrorism is not a big deal.
Measured in terms of loss of life and economic disruption, terrorism is a trivial problem, hardly worth mentioning. According to the UN, 36 million people die annually from hunger and malnutrition. Over half a million die in car wrecks—but you don’t hear people like Lipow demanding that we get rid of cars. A more legitimate concern is the “loss” of taxes upon the underground economy, estimated by the IMF at 15 percent of transactions in developed nations.
What the anti-cash movement really wants is digital totalitarianism: a dystopian nightmare in which the entire human race is enslaved by international corporations and their pet governments. An anti-establishment gadfly like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be instantly deprived of money—and thus freedom of movement—with a couple of keystrokes. (We saw a preview of this when PayPal and Amazon shut down WikiLeaks donation mechanism and web server, respectively.) The high-tech hell depicted by the film “Enemy of the State” would become reality.
It is true that, in a society where every good and service has to be paid for with a debit or credit card, terrorist groups would find it much harder to operate. Don’t forget, however, that today’s terrorists often become tomorrow’s liberators. Anti-British terrorists George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have stood a chance if the Brits had been able to intercept wire transfers from France.
Decashification would establish digital totalitarianism, a form of corporo-government control so rigid, thorough and all-encompassing that by comparison it would make Hitler and Stalin look like easygoing surfer dudes. The abolition of unregulated financial transactions would freeze the political configuration of the world, making it impossible for opposition movements—much less revolutionary ones—to challenge the status quo.
A society without dissent has no hope. Even if we lived in a perfect world where everyone was ruled by wildly popular, benevolent, scrupulously honest regimes—ha!—eliminating the slightest possibility of opposition would lead to barbarism.
We’re already more than halfway to a cashless society. In the U.S. few young adults still use checks. In many countries debit and credit card transactions now exceed those made via cash and checks combined. In 2007 the chairman of Visa Europe predicted the abolition of cash by 2012. Obviously he was wrong. But that’s where we’re headed. The U.K. plans to abolish checking accounts by 2018.
Even if you love your government, don’t want it to change, and think political opponents belong in prison, you ought to worry. As things currently stand, we know the big banks can’t be trusted. Remember when they introduced ATM cards? Banks wanted us to use them so they could lay off tellers. Then they instituted “convenience fees.” Which they have raised, and raised, to the point that taking $20 out of an out-of-town ATM could cost you $5 in fees ($2 for their bank, $3 for yours).
Imagine what your life will look like under digital totalitarianism. Your pay is direct-deposited into your bank account. You’ll pay for small purchases with your cellphone; if you owe a few bucks to a friend you’ll be able to bump your phone against your friend’s to settle up. Nowadays, some corporations allow you to control when your bills get deducted; in the future they’ll demand that you authorize them to do it automatically. What if you have a disputed charge? They’ll already have your dollars, or work credits, or whatever they’ll call them. Good luck trying to get it back from the Indian call-center guy.
As corporate ownership becomes increasingly monopolized and intertwined, your overdue phone bill might be owned by the same outfit as your bank, which would simply take what it says you owe.
The law of unintended consequences is getting a serious workout thanks to digitalization. Motorists in New York were thrilled when the EZPass system allowed them to breeze past lines at toll bridges—at a discount, no less. Then divorce lawyers began subpoenaing EZPass records to prove that a spouse was cheating. Next police set up EZPass scanners on the bridges; if you pass two of them too fast, a speeding ticket is automatically generated. The next step is to eliminate cash lanes entirely; non-EZPass tag holders will soon have their license plates scanned and receive a bill by mail—plus a $2 to $3 “handling” fee.
Think there are too many fees now? If you think you can’t trust banks now, imagine how badly they’ll gouge you when they control every single commercial transaction down to the purchase of a pack of gum. Angry about taxes? When tax agencies can take the money out of your account without asking, they will. Unlike cash, that phone bump to pay your friend will be a trackable, data mineable, fully taxable commercial transaction.
As if the post-2008 economic collapse hadn’t proven that no one is looking out for We the People but ourselves—and then barely so—the digivangelists tell us not to worry, that Big Brother, Inc. will smooth out the rough patches on the road to techno-fascist domination. From Wolman in Wired: “Opponents used to argue that killing cash would hurt low-income workers—for instance, by eliminating cash tips. But a modest increase in the minimum wage would offset that loss; government savings from not printing money could go toward lower taxes for employers.” Sure. The same way banks passed on the savings they earned by replacing tellers with ATMs to their customers.
Americans are skipping into the digital inferno wearing a smile and relishing the smell of their own burning flesh. Countless friends and acquaintances pay all their bills online. “I’m all about using my checking account in place of cash and would love to be able to eliminate cash entirely from my life,” gushed PCWorld’s Tony Bradley recently.
“Give me convenience or give me death” was the title of an album by the punk band Dead Kennedys.
We’ll get both.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL
Cables Reveal Background of Pro-Dictator U.S. Policy
After the Soviet collapse in 1991 U.S. policy toward Central Asia was transparently cynical: support the dictators, screw the people.
As the U.S. stood by and watched, corrupt autocrats looted the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Dissidents were jailed, massacred—even boiled.
Well, actually, the U.S. was anything but passive. They negotiated deals for oil and gas pipelines. They rented airbases after 9/11. They poured in tens of millions of American tax dollars—all of which wound up in secret bank accounts belonging to the dictators and their families. Meanwhile, average citizens lived in abject poverty.
During trips to Central Asia the locals constantly ask me: “Why doesn’t America stop supporting [insert name of corrupt dictator here] so we can kill him and free ourselves?”
Poor, naïve people. They believe our rhetoric. They think we like democracy. Actually, we’re all about the looting. Dictators are easier to deal with than parliaments. One handshake and a kickback, that’s all you need with a dictator.
Central Asia only had one democratically elected president, Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan. George W. Bush ordered the CIA to depose him in a coup.
Americans who care about human rights have long wondered: Is the State Department stupid and/or naïve? Or did the diplomats in Tashkent and other capitals of unspeakable misery understand the brutal and vile nature of Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders?
An examination of the WikiLeaks data dump answers that question: Yes.
Like those from concerning more prominent countries, the WikiLeaks cables on the Central Asian republics can be funny. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a U.S. “ally in the war on terror” who seized power in a palace coup following the death of Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov, is described as “the ‘decider’ for the state of Turkmenistan.” This is true. Turkmenistan is an absolute dictatorship in which millions starve while Berdimuhamedov’s inner circle feasts on the profits from the world’s largest reserves of natural gas.
A December 2009 cable describes America’s pet autocrat as “vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative, a practiced liar, ‘a good actor,’ and vindictive.”
According to an unnamed source, the outwardly conservative dictator has a Russian mistress named Marina, with whom he has a 14-year-old daughter. Though Berdy’s power may be limitless, his intellect is not. “Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is,” says the cable. “Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.”
No one’s perfect. Least of all America’s allies in Central Asia.
On the other side of the steppe in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev presides over the world’s largest oil reserves with an iron fist. Among his greatest hits: the convenient “suicides” of his top two political opponents a few months before a presidential “election.” The two men apparently shot themselves in the back of the head, then bound their own hands behind their backs and dropped into a ditch outside Almaty.
Needless to say, Nazarbayev is another valuable U.S. ally in the war on terror.
But that doesn’t stop American gossip. Nazarbayev’s defense minister, says an embassy staffer in Astana, “appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true ‘homo sovieticus’ style—i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.” But alcoholism isn’t illegal. Graft is—and the president is public enemy number one.
“In 2007, President Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, celebrated his 41st birthday in grand style,” explains an April 2008 cable. “At a small venue in Almaty, he hosted a private concert with some of Russia’s biggest pop stars. The headliner, however, was Elton John, to whom he reportedly paid one million pounds for this one-time appearance.” How did he come up with all that coin? “Timur Kulibayev is currently the favored presidential son-in-law, on the Forbes 500 list of billionaires (as is his wife separately), and the ultimate controller of 90% of the economy of Kazakhstan,” states a January 2010 missive.
Membership has its privileges. The U.S. has never spoken out against corruption or human rights abuses in Kazakhstan.
So it’s clear: American diplomats have no illusions about their brutal allies. Interestingly, Central Asia’s overlords have a dismally accurate view of corruption in the U.S. government.
“Listen, almost everyone at the top [of the Kazakh regime] is confused,” First Vice President Maksat Idenov told the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan early this year. “They’re confused by the corrupt excesses of capitalism. ‘If Goldman Sachs executives can make $50 million a year and then run America’s economy in Washington, what’s so different about what we do?’ they ask.”
No response was provided.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL