Rock Star Journalists

Hackers and bloggers, investigative journalists, whistleblowers and scholars are collaborating in a way that speaks to what the Internet was intended to be. All under the watchful eye of Anonymous.

Celebrity chefs have had their day. The new rock star celebrities are journalists. They’re bigger than the brands they represent and are, in the words of Thoreau, “counter friction to the machine.” They speak truth to power and believe balance and objectivity are bullshit because lies and criminality do not deserve equal time with the truth.

Take, for example, Matt Taibbi and the late Michael Hastings who took Rolling Stone from an anachronistic music industry journal and turned it into a rabble-rousing political juggernaut. The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper is scooping American journals at every turn, making them out to be the establishment sycophants they truly are. Sites like Alternet, Truthdig and Truthout are publishing profound progressive material for the world to see on subjects that were formerly under the exclusive purview of local alternative weekly publications. Hackers and bloggers, investigative journalists, whistleblowers and scholars are collaborating in a way that speaks to what the Internet was intended to be. All under the watchful eye of Anonymous.

This is truly the new golden age of journalism. Any question that arises from this statement should be put to rest by the ignominious manner in which the government has assaulted those who challenge it. The cover story in the July 2013 edition of the Long Island Press by Chris Twarowski and Rashed Mian (rock stars in their own right) tells the story of the fearless crusaders of this generation by tipping a cap to the dissidents and truth tellers of old. As we note on our cover image (inset) these were people who were vilified in their time by the ruling class and vindicated over time by the working class. Some are famous, most are not. Yet each had the courage of their convictions and righteousness on their side.

For us, the Bradley Manning trial is the tip of the spear. His revelations, published through Wikileaks, broke open the floodgates and allowed a new journalistic sentiment to pour through. It is not a sentiment shared by the corporately controlled broadcast and print media in the United States, but it is pervasive among this new breed of advocacy writer. And while the indefatigable journalists such as Alexa O’Brien and Kevin Gosztola who are covering it every day are hardly household names, they ought to be. It’s why we chose to pay homage to them in telling the story of PFC Manning.

Recently my wife and I attended a talk at the New School with journalist and author Jeremy Scahill who was being interviewed by the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman about his new book, Dirty Wars. The auditorium was overflowing with attendees trying to catch a glimpse of Scahill who is arguably the biggest rock star in the field of investigative journalism right now; a distinction challenged only by Scahill’s good friend Glenn Greenwald, also of the Guardian, who brought to light the NSA revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden, now the most sought after man on earth. The only two people in the audience to receive louder ovations than Scahill were Dr. Cornel West and Scahill’s mentor Amy Goodman. This was a progressive paradise that could have been an advertisement for NPR tote bags.

Ackerman was a solid choice to interview Scahill as he is also well known as a national security and government reporter for Wired Magazine, having only recently made the move to the Guardian. The Guardian’s ascendency in the U.S. is part of the intriguing backstory to the Snowden affair. Just how far under the skin of the U.S. government the U.K.-based news organization has travelled is evidenced by a recent Ackerman story confirming that the U.S. military “was filtering out reports and content relating to government surveillance programs to preserve “network hygiene.””

Network hygiene. Interesting terminology.

Perhaps it is because the Guardian is based in the U.K. that it is immune to U.S. propaganda. What’s so utterly disturbing is that Americans seem to have little defense against it. We swallow terms like “hygiene” hook, line and sinker instead of recognizing it for what it is: censorship. Our media are complicit in this linguistic cover-up, repeating government jargon and name-calling, thereby legitimizing it.

Want to counter the investigative journalism of Jeremy Scahill? Call him a terrorist sympathizer.
Looking to turn the public’s attention Edward Snowden’s revelations of the U.S. illegal data collection and wiretapping of basically the entire planet? Say he emboldened the terrorists.
Frustrated by Glenn Greenwald’s lack of respect for authority? Have lackeys in the U.S. media suggest that he too is a traitor.
Want to teach other would-be whistleblowers a lesson? Lock up Bradley Manning and strip him of all his constitutional rights by putting him in solitary confinement then parade him through kangaroo court under the guise of due process.

The people on our cover didn’t fall for any of this bullshit. They spoke truth to power and several died for their “sins.” But each of them was vindicated over time. Someday, hopefully Bradley Manning will be as well. But this will only happen if the rock star journalists of today continue to burn bright enough to illuminate the dark corporate propagandists that seek to discredit their work and shield us from the truth.

Extreme Alliance: Finding Common Ground with Manning and Snowden

Where others have failed to shed light on the dark shadow our military casts over the world, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have succeeded by demonstrating the courage to reveal our ignominy and speak truth to power

The exclusivity of the axiom that Democrats eat their own has been challenged in recent years by Republican infighting. Libertarians, having fully asserted themselves into the modern conservative movement, have fractured the Republican base and splintered allegiances that have endured for decades. Progressives have all but broken ties with the Democratic Party over a host of issues from single payer healthcare to drone strikes and regularly engage “Obamabots” in Twitter wars. But the blockbuster cases of PFC Bradley Manning and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have perhaps delivered the most bizarre ideological twist of all.

Libertarians and progressives have united on the issue of civil liberties, with Manning and Snowden as the source of the gravitational pull. It’s a tepid alliance of strange bedfellows that grows stronger with each passing day. Although lesser-known to consumers of mainstream media, the cases of Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz, Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake have also helped to galvanize the furthest reaches of the American ideological spectrum.

This alliance of extremes comes from a deep understanding of the current risks that we face as Americans; an understanding of things rarely addressed with any depth or consistency in corporate broadcast and print media. Savvy and literate seekers of information who eschew corporate media know these risks by their legislative acronyms. AUMF. FISA. NDAA. Moreover, they know how they combine to infringe upon our rights as citizens in a manner that is unprecedented in U.S. history.

Some Americans are familiar with the appalling tributaries that stem from them. Drone strikes, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, domestic communication management units and the overzealous prosecution of whistleblowers. Yet the neoliberal propaganda machine has been in overdrive for decades hammering into us ideas such as American “exceptionalism” (our lives are worth more than all others), corporations are people and money should be protected as speech. The have taught us to believe that our desire for privacy implies that we have something to hide, whereas their need for secrecy implies a sense of noblesse oblige.

Normalizing these absurdities by openly defending them through corporate propaganda channels has dulled our senses as a people. We are the walking dumb. The politically illiterate.

The government relies on its ability to manipulate the public by keeping it in a constant state of fear. Every generation has its Bogeyman beginning with the earliest days of the republic. In school we are taught to embrace the principles of the Declaration of Independence to the extent that they suit the prevailing American narrative. Ignored in school is the racist and imperial dogma found in these words from the same document: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For years now I have reported on the relationship between the American government and sovereign Indian territories. Therefore, America’s paternalistic attitude toward the rest of the world is entirely familiar. The U.S. government views the world as one giant reservation system filled with dispensable people who receive handouts directly proportionate to the natural resources they possess. Failure to comply with our demands is to risk sanctions or occupation. The world has witnessed the unbroken wave of devastation the U.S. wrought in Indochina, the Middle East and Northern Africa, South America and Central America. The American war machine is fully autonomous, perpetual and indiscriminate.

Where others have failed to shed light on the dark shadow our military casts over the world, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have succeeded by demonstrating the courage to reveal our ignominy and speak truth to power. It’s why the ideological fringes of our nation see the greatness in what they have done. Progressives and Libertarians, regardless of their differences, do not revere authority. They question it. And while the conclusions they draw on several issues differ dramatically, neither easily accepts the official government narrative regarding Manning and Snowden, which is they recognize these men as heroic.

As for the rest of America, the government’s actions, no matter how barbaric or unconstitutional, are cloaked in the flag and sold as necessary tools in the “War on Terror.” To reject this notion as a citizen is to risk being alienated and branded a traitor. We have been brainwashed to believe that to “support the troops” somehow means sacrificing our youth abroad in the pursuit of oil and permanent war. Americans are so far removed from our activist roots that most are unable to see that today’s Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are yesterday’s Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. That today’s Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Alexa O’Brien are yesterday’s Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Seymour Hersh. That today’s Barrett Brown and Cindy Sheehan are yesterday’s Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King, Jr..

As a nation we tend to swallow the wholesale premise that all government actions are for our own good and that they must be employed in secret for our safety. But the secrecy the government defends is not only from the citizens it is accountable to but from the institutions designed to protect us from authoritarianism. To wit, our judicial system no longer has authority over wiretapping. Congress no longer has any oversight over the military. The Fourth Estate no longer enjoys the absolute protection afforded by the First Amendment. And dissidents no longer enjoy the freedom to peaceably assemble without intervention from law enforcement agencies with military arsenals.

Americans suffer from political amnesia. Forgotten are the Indian “removal” policies, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps, the Kent State massacre, McCarthyism and Watergate. Therefore we have also forgotten the protections established to prevent these things from happening again. For those more concerned about whether Edward Snowden visited his mother enough or quibbling over Bradley Manning’s sexual orientation, allow me to demystify the above acronyms and explain what it is they are fighting against.

AUMF: Authorization for Use of Military Force. Immediately following 9/11 Congress granted extraordinary authority to the Bush administration to conduct a global war on terror. It was under this authority that the United States conducted illegal invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan—nations with no connection to 9/11. It was also under this authority that the Bush administration began employing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), more commonly known as drones, to hunt members of Al Qaeda in the mountainous regions of Pakistan. Both Presidents Bush and Obama expanded upon this authority to include Yemen and Somalia. These strikes are illegal, unconstitutional and immoral. They are not targeted, discriminate or judicious, despite the assertions of the Obama administration. We are terrorizing, and subsequently radicalizing, citizens of nations that we are not at war with.

FISA: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Originally enacted as a result of the Nixon administration’s abuse of eavesdropping, FISA was designed to establish a protocol for U.S. surveillance activities that required the government to obtain judicial approval prior to any such operation. The Bush administration broke this protocol and secretly authorized the NSA to eavesdrop without warrants. Even after the New York Times revealed the program, Congress amended the act in 2008 and officially granted the administration the authority to continue warrantless wiretapping with oversight from “secret courts.”

Secret courts. Secret. Fucking. Courts. In America.

Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have publicly insisted that U.S. citizens have never been targets of any such program. Now we know this was a lie. Snowden’s recent revelations by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have demonstrated that quite the opposite is true and the surveillance state is worse than anyone had predicted.

Spying is big business as evidenced by the fact that there are 1.6 private contractors working for the government in surveillance operations for every one government employee performing the same function. Our information has been outsourced to corporations that are writing and lobbying for the legislation that allows for it. Therefore, even those who defend the actions of the government must then concede that they are defending the actions of private corporations. It’s imperative that we see beyond the argument that if you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to hide. It’s false logic because it falls apart in reverse. If this program was honest and constitutional, there would be no reason to lie about it, cover it up then threaten to silence anyone who attempts to speak out about it.

NDAA: The National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA is an act that Congress is required to pass at the beginning of each fiscal year to organize funding and codify policies and procedures carried out by the military. Activists refer to NDAA as shorthand for an amendment authored in secret in December of 2011 by Senator John McCain regarding indefinite detention. Renowned journalist Chris Hedges brought suit against the government arguing that the language of this provision was so broad and vague that it theoretically allows for military detention of U.S. citizens, something the government vehemently denies. Nevertheless, instead of amending the language to quell any fear surrounding domestic military intervention against U.S. citizens, the Department of Justice has vigorously defended the inclusion of this provision in federal court.

The indefinite detention provision of the NDAA expands executive authority granted under the AUMF from those suspected of carrying out the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to anyone suspected of supporting terrorists. Nowhere does the government provide the definition of a terrorist or what might be considered “support.”

In May of 2013 the Pentagon introduced yet another wrinkle to this very dangerous equation. The Department of Defense altered a rule in the US Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” that grants the military the ability to quell civil disturbances and temporarily control a situation in the event authorization from the President of the United States is impossible to obtain. Nowhere does the DoD define what constitutes a civil disturbance, how long this temporary authority might last, whether or not civilians can be militarily detained without due process or under what circumstances the president would be “impossible” to reach.

Welcome to the Banana Republic of America.

Tie together the extraordinary authority the government has granted itself under these three provisions and the gravity of our predicament becomes painfully obvious. The government has the authority to listen to our conversations without obtaining a warrant. It is not only tracking every move you make online, it’s storing this information and building a profile from your actions. Any journalist who interviews someone the United States considers a terrorist threat can be seen as supporting this person. The military has the legal authority to quell any gathering it considers a “disturbance.” The military and domestic civilian agencies such as the CIA have the ability to carry out assassinations abroad regardless of whether we are involved in armed conflict in these territories. It can “disappear” anyone inside or outside of the United States for any reason.

These are the real threats to our liberty. To view them as such is to recognize the historical significance of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and appreciate the service they have performed for the benefit of our republic.

Propaganda Versus Journalism

Manufactured consent is essentially the end result of propaganda; the conformity of thought that exhibits itself in a nationalistic dogma.

Obtaining Consent in the Digital Age

The disease of the liberal class is the specious, supposedly ‘professional’ insistence on objectivity. Before the rise of commercial newspapers, journals of opinion existed to influence public sentiment via arguments–not to stultify readers with lists of facts. Our oldest universities were formed to train ministers and inculcate into students the primacy of the common good. Labor unions had a vision of an egalitarian society that understood the inevitability of class struggle. Artists from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck sought not only to explain social, political, economic, and cultural reality, but also to use this understanding to fight for a social order based on justice. Movements that defied the power elite often started and sustained these liberal institutions, which were created as instruments of reform. One by one, these institutions succumbed to the temptation of money, the jargon of patriotism, belief in the need for permanent war, fear of internal and external enemies, and distrust of radicals, who had once kept the liberal class honest. And when it was over, the liberal class had nothing left to say.”

− from “Death of the Liberal Class” by Chris Hedges

The above is a cynical sentiment, if ever there was one, because it speaks to the failure of the liberal establishment in the past tense. In Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges reserves his venom for those who should know better: the liberal elite who, by design, are supposed to act as a buffer to the establishment; what Thoreau called “counter friction to stop the machine.” Instead, as a nation, we have submitted to the masters of the corporate state by handing them our thoughts. Even those who retain them–the liberal class of clergy, scholars and journalists Hedges speaks of–have either tempered or fully vanquished these thoughts for fear of systematic retribution, which is to say, loss of freedoms and livelihoods. Speaking out against corporate America or the government is to risk losing everything.

The indoctrination of an idea or of a complete ideology into the people of a nation happens in one of two ways. The first is by force. Noam Chomsky describes this authoritarian methodology of “consent without consent” as prescribed by the 19th century American sociologist Franklin Henry Giddings, who reasoned that an imperialist agenda–whereby a conquered nation is forced to adopt the ideological systems of the conqueror–could be a noble pursuit. According to Giddings, this validity of consent without consent is rationalized afterward when the conquered people “see and admit that the disputed relation was for the highest interest.” This was the imperialist rationale used in Southeast Asia and Latin America by the United States and in India by Britain. It’s nothing new.

But the world no longer buys in to American consent without consent. Our missions abroad have been too transparently imperialistic in the eyes of the world, which is why we are so routinely, yet cautiously, chastised by other nations. Selling wars that were waged abroad in the 20th century relied on this form of posthumous “consent” from people in nations we deigned to conquer. Obtaining consent at home proved far more difficult as Americans began to understand the specious, unconscionable motives behind our “democratic” efforts in Vietnam, in particular. But the rise of anti-war protests had less to do with American sentiment toward the people of Vietnam and more to do with conscription. The era of genuine protest ended with the discontinuation of the draft in 1973.

Undaunted, our belligerence has overcome the loss of faith entrusted in us by other nations after World War II and spurred America toward the “go it alone” philosophy adopted over the past few decades. This was best exhibited by George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” attitude in the months leading to our war in Iraq. Despite having the world’s sympathy after 9/11, America bullied other nations into a tepid alliance in support of our hostilities against Iraq–a country that simply had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and was ruled by a regime more repressive of Islamic militants than any Western nation in the alliance.

Yet bullying the world into complicity was one thing. Gaining support among Americans was a different matter altogether. Americans were not going to be forcibly cajoled into supporting an invasion in Iraq. Thus began an explosion of anti-Islam and pro-war propaganda within the United States concealed in the language of jingoism. “When the resources of violence are limited,” writes Chomsky, “the consent of the governed must be obtained by the devices called ‘manufacture of consent.’”

Corporate media fell in line almost immediately with the government narrative after 9/11. Spreading democracy became the euphemism for sacking regimes. Caskets containing the bodies of U.S. soldiers were shielded from public view. The field of battle became known as “theater.” Despite sending our troops into harm’s way for undemocratic purposes, the phrase “support our troops” became ubiquitous and was spoken without irony. Laws that stripped Americans of civil liberties and privacy were passed in the name of “Homeland Security,” which itself has become more than a cottage industry. To wit, the Homeland Security Research Corporation, a D.C.-based research firm, estimates that just the U.S. market alone will “grow from $74.5 billion in 2012 to $107.3 billion in 2020.”

Journalists who spoke out against the war, such as Chris Hedges, were smeared and tarred as unpatriotic. Artists who criticized the war, such as the Dixie Chicks, were ostracized and threatened. Americans were whipped into a frenzy by a government that warned of imminent destruction in the homeland by radical Islamists. Officials spoke with urgency about “weapons of mass destruction.” Before anyone could process what was happening, we were at war, overthrowing Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, 1,500 miles away from Afghanistan, where we were told the jihadists had planned 9/11—1,500 miles away from another war we already started and soon forgot. A war that would eventually become America’s longest engagement in “theater.”

In his book Crude World, Peter Maas, who was reporting from Baghdad at the time of our invasion, wrote, “President George W. Bush insisted before the invasion that it had nothing to do with oil, that it was about weapons of mass destruction and, to a lesser extent, democracy. He was not being honest.” Maas describes how “in Baghdad, the Ministry of Oil turned into the Ministry of Truth… While most government buildings, including the National Museum, were looted of everything from artwork to computers and light bulbs, after which the remains were often set alight, the Oil Ministry…was untouched.” He quotes a ministry official who told him, “The Americans will not steal the oil but they will control it; they will pull the strings.” And indeed we do; we have.

Manufactured consent is essentially the end result of propaganda; the conformity of thought that exhibits itself in a nationalistic dogma. It comes from the repetition of twisted logic delivered through mainstream media channels, logic that somehow turns our authentic subconscious into synthetic reality. Blood for oil under the pretense of spreading democracy. Tax cuts for the wealthy as a way of helping the poorest among us. Corporate campaign contributions protected as free speech. Less regulation as a way to stabilize the financial markets. Bollox, every bit of it.

Manufactured consent: backward logic and nonsensical ideas sold as pragmatic solutions to social ills and economic misfortune bought hook, line and sinker by a public pounded into submission by a relentless barrage of misinformation from seemingly credible sources. Robert McChesney, in his introduction to Noam Chomsky’s People Over Profit, observes that “proponents of neoliberalism sound as if they are doing poor people, the environment, and everybody else a tremendous service as they enact policies on behalf of the wealthy few.”

Maddeningly, we have so much of the right information at our fingertips. As much as the digital age has given malevolent propagandists the ability to more easily disseminate false information, the same holds true for quality. Unfortunately, great information and quality journalism tend to be crowded out on social media by “listicles,” memes and pictures of cats. The world is complex and therefore the great stories (and there are many) take time to produce and time to digest. And time is slipping away from all of us.

Selective Outrage

We drink in our news from the sources we trust, through the lens we feel comfortable with, amidst the people with whom we fit.

I think I have something bad to say about the liberal media. Until I read this piece in The Atlantic, I doubted one existed. I know that the news media comes at their subjects with some pre-formed conclusions, that Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly view the same facts through different lenses. I know that Fox leans right and MSNBC left, the Times left and the Wall Street Journal right. And I thought that even with this bias, the news gets out to the people, and some of the more critically minded count themselves among the well-informed, and the business of life goes on.

Admittedly, I consider myself a liberal leaning lefty. Beyond alliteration, I align my political views with the social policies of the day: gay rights, women’s equality and the increasing misalignment of the socio-economic classes in this country. I’m anti-death penalty, pro-gay marriage, and have discussed at length my stance on gun control. But I’ve never written about abortion. I have my views and they fit neatly within the political party I identify with. They would surprise no one.

But I don’t talk about it. Because even if I support a woman’s right to choose, it’s ugly. And heartbreakingly sad. Yet, I believe that that right is necessary and that it is a personal choice to be made. The circumstances that lead to this choice vary in the myriad ways that people vary. We would be hard-pressed to find two identical stories, but we can connect with each other over the experiences we all share. The emotional toll on the abortion debate is high. For those who oppose it, it is nothing less than the murder of innocents. I don’t dismiss that view, even if I don’t concur.

Like the gun issue, I think it’s bigger, if there is something bigger than human life. I think to consider the issue, we need to incorporate lots of other issues, especially how we marginalize and discriminate against the poorest and darkest among us, about how the first things to go are the social safety nets and not the tax breaks, and about how if women are forced by people who are pro-life to have babies they cannot take care of, they are abandoned too by a country whose concern for them extends only as far as their gestation. Beyond that, they need to pull themselves up by their bootie-straps.

Violence abounds with this issue and voices lower to whispers among the like-minded.  Yet, something gets lost when that happens. In Pennsylvania, so much was lost.  For years, laws were broken, racism abounded in a dirty abortion clinic, and bureaucratic red tape was sidestepped because this issue is too political to get involved with. Pro-choice people, like myself, have stated our cases so strongly that abortion clinics in Pennsylvania stopped getting regulated. They moved on. And a monster of a man named Kermit Gosnell murdered fetuses and babies and women. He spread venereal diseases with filthy instruments, performed a grisly amount of illegal late-term abortions, delivered live babies he then murdered, and employed underaged, under-supervised, and under-trained people to administer medication. He pawned his black patients to that staff, and let his white girls see “the doctor.” Some of them died. And though several people alerted authorities over the years, the complaints weren’t followed up on. So many agencies dropped the ball. Might it be because the clientele was primarily non-white and poor?

This was isolated. His practice doesn’t represent a single other doctor, or human being, other than himself. But the lack of media coverage highlights something. The way that I heard the name Kermit Gosnell was in an article tweeted by the Atlantic with the details of the grand jury trial and the case being made for more media coverage. Conor Friedersdorf compared the coverage that Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to Sandra Fluke received in the media with the details of this case. It has all the gruesome makings for a front page, but it hasn’t been one. Not the way Limbaugh’s “slut” comment was.

We’ve all chosen our sides by now. We know where we stand and are ready to defend those positions from wherever we are: in the news, on social media, in coffee shops and bars. We drink in our news from the sources we trust, through the lens we feel comfortable with, amidst the people with whom we fit. Religion and politics have long since been discarded as subjects we don’t talk about in polite conversation at the dinner table. Polite conversations went out long ago with the dinner table. We’re informed and opinionated, but the middle ground has been sacrificed in the social civil war of a dialogue that pits us for or against each other.

Certain segments of the media has chosen sides as well. Was the underreporting of Gosnell a case of the liberal media not wanting to lose political points because abortion is one of the absolutes? Criticizing abortion has so much consequence that connecting something so heinous with something we support will undoubtedly bring fallout. Yet, the conservative media, mainly Breitbart News  and The Heritage Foundation, are full of criticism of the lack of coverage, yet they hadn’t covered it either. Marco Rubio tweeted, “Media blackout of Kermit #Gosnell case is shameful but not surprising. Powerful example of msm bias in America today.” Rather than addressing the moral corruption of a story like Gosnell’s, the right is circumventing it in order to fry bigger fish: the left, who is now, with names like Anderson Cooper  and vehicles like Salon, on the story. Turns out, Slate’s Double XX column has been covering it since 2011.

We’re looking for a demon, someone to blame in the face of an unimaginable crime born of ugly circumstance. That crime doesn’t fit the narrative of the liberal media. Yet, the conservative media, instead of focusing on the devil in front of us, is trying to win political points by blaming the left, when they should blame, rightfully, Kermit Gosnell.

I came to my political beliefs because I believe there was a moral imperative and a right side (on the left.) It is something supported by my conscience, a way to root for the little guy, the huddled masses, those traditionally discriminated against. It’s because I think as a country we are as strong as our weakest link and by supporting women’s right to choose, I can reconcile those beliefs. My support hasn’t changed, but my absoluteness has.

I have been afraid of a lot lately. Gunfire, mostly, since Newtown. Not for me, but for my kids. But I’ve also been afraid of being wrong. That fear often keeps me from considering what the other side has to say. It has me looking to dismiss impassioned arguments from those I disagree with.

But worse than that, it has kept me quiet. In choosing staunch and irresolute sides, we lose the nuance of our beliefs.  And in the case of Kermit Gosnell, we lose our humanity.

The Audacity of Disrespect

The President is not Octomom, yet beginning in the Clinton nineties, the media has done little to distinguish between the two in channels like gonzo radio and fluff journalism.

A recent Politico article claimed that Obama is the “puppet master,” controlling the media in unprecedented ways by limiting press contact, eschewing interviews, and releasing information directly to the masses via social media, which they accuse him of being “obsessed with.” All this leads to a crafted and manipulated image.

And it just isn’t fair.

Indeed, the Obama administration does seem to keep America on a need-to-know basis, with an attitude that seems to say, “Uh, look. I‘ve got it all under control. You don’t need to know what I’m doing, just trust that I’ve got this.” I don’t even think Michele would be cool with that kind of policy.  But I wonder if Obama’s distrust of the media might be warranted and that his use of social media is, I don’t know, actually democratic. Politico is incredulous that the President would go straight to the people with his message, instead of through the funhouse mirror of the media. Well, why is that?

Let’s consider the golf game that everyone is making such a ruckus about. It seems silly to be all up in arms about a golf game between the President of the United States and pro Tiger Woods. But what the media sees is yet another example of denied access to the President, who will in turn release staged photographs of the outing, carefully shot to show his good side, or a pensive moment that we can interpret in a larger context, as in, Obama kneeling on the green, concentrating on his putt. The public thinks “This is a guy who makes careful deliberations on anything from foreign policy to immigration.” What we won’t see is Obama patting Tiger on the ass after a particularly long drive, which could be interpreted as “black” or indicative of anything from homosexuality to socialism to civil rights.

If the press is going to publicly bitch about – I kid you not – “golf-gate,” then they should take this time for some self-examination. There is a line between the integrity of the fourth estate – taking a President to task and revealing his true character and abilities to the public in a responsible way – and what has become entertainment news, where everything is fair game and respect for the highest office is disposable. The President is not Octomom, yet beginning in the Clinton nineties, the media has done little to distinguish between the two in channels like gonzo radio and fluff journalism.

From primary season onward, a Presidential candidate has the impossible task of needing to be not just all things to all people, but very specific things to very specific and different types of people.  We need an intellectual who can hold his own in a debate, and the causal dude we could share a beer with; an Ivy-league educated scholar, who hasn’t the nerve to attach himself to elitism; we need a Commander in Chief, but we need him to exercise justice cautiously.  He is like the man’s fantasy of the perfect woman: a lady in public, but a whore in the bedroom. 

In office, he is elevated to a level where he ceases to be a man, but a President, for whom we rise when he enters the room, accompanied by Hail to the Chief at every juncture.  But in the 90s, when Survivor brought reality television to the people, and news became entertainment, a new generation was brewing.  Monica Lewinsky recognized the man in the suit in the Oval Office, and flashed the thong that will forever live in infamy.

What separates Bill Clinton’s indiscretions from any President who came before him, Kennedy as the most obvious example, is not only the blood thirst with which he was hunted, but the casualness that it wrought. 

Let’s consider the coverage of President Kennedy versus President Clinton. Kennedy has the luxury of having been assassinated, and is thus elevated to American martyr. His flaws are airbrushed to reveal a royal portrait. Yet if we consider what we knew when he was alive, and what we have learned since, the picture grows less refined. Affairs – many, and not well hidden. Mafia ties. Shady connections. Health problems hidden from the public, questionable medication.

Fast forward to Bill Clinton, hunted, demeaned, impeached. Bill Clinton is no martyr – he did wrong, had sexually reprehensible behavior. And was brought to task. But this administration knocked down the walls of integrity like no other. The indignation of the media was always ridiculous – with every sex scandal, they are shocked, dismayed, incredulous. Really? But they also raised disrespect for the oval office to a new level, despite the fact that Clinton’s indiscretions were fewer and less blatant than Kennedy’s.

So what gives?

It might be the culture of on air radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh who saw dollar signs in scandals and eager listeners whose ears perked at the audacity of disrespect. It seemed rebellious at the time. Brave, even, and it kept Limbaugh in divorces and painkillers for the next twenty years.

The Bush era continued the trend. The President was depicted as a moron, a big-eared, wide eyed idiotic puppet, when he was merely a cowardly, overly simplistic, dangerous, religious zealot. The media latched on to his mispronunciation of the word “nuclear” and his patriotic photo ops, and called him out on his depth of understanding concerning foreign policy. In fact, the notion that “You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” was so lacking in nuance that Fox, launched during the Clinton years, needed to double down on its twenty-four hour propaganda for GOP damage control. Yet what every station reporting the news at that time had in common was a casualness about how the President was depicted.

What was once pomp and circumstance and a certain reverence is now fodder for the Twitter generation. What was highbrow has been brought so low as to make Representative Joe Wilson comfortable enough to burst out, “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech on healthcare without even prefacing it with a “Mr. President.”  We can argue about whether Senator McCain’s reference to then candidate Obama as “that one,” was only racist, but I’d argue that it was more: it was an example the framing of the highest office on the planet as a job for any Joe. Decorum has left the building; John Boehner has taken to advising Harry Reid to “go fuck [him]self,” during fiscal cliff negotiations, which still hasn’t topped then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s address to liberal activists as “fucking retarded,” in a strategy meeting because they planned to launch ads attacking conservative democrats.

Bill O’Reilly recently had a show where he focused on an urban Hispanic girl who mouthed off to a judge and received a 30 day jail sentence as a result.  From there, he jumped to “America has a respect problem!” to “public schools are to blame” because they’ve softened punishments from the strict comeuppance of the distant past.  It’s a bit rich, coming from someone in the media who has made a living off of racist, demeaning, and highly disrespectful commentary. Bill O’Reilly’s audience accounts for more than three million nightly viewers who tune in to watch segments like “Pinheads and Patriots.” Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that there is a “Lack of Respect Epidemic” brings me back to that commercial in the 80s, he one with the kid with the basketball, urging parents to talk to their kids about drugs. “I learned it from watching you, Dad!”

That his program is right-leaning is not an issue in and of itself, or the fact that he airs from Fox. Jon Stewart broadcasts from the left on Comedy Central, and has been known to bring to task the people he credits for the devolving of respect, both for higher office and for the climate of conversation in the country. Just as he’d lampooned CNN’s Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as hurtful to the electorate by not taking their jobs as CNN reporters who owe their audiences authentic debate as “a responsibility to the public discourse,” but rather producers of “theater,” he similarly chastised MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow for using  “teabagger,” as a derogatory term.

We can argue about whether the news should be entertaining or if our entertainment could provide enlightenment, but until that is resolved, President Obama is going to take control of his own image.

Until we give “that one” the respect the highest office in the whole frigging world rightfully deserves.

 

The Press is Going Monthly. Here’s Why.

Since the days of WLIR and WDRE, breaking new ground is in our DNA. It’s who we are, so it’s what we do. So while it may look as though the Press is downshifting, in reality we are moving forward full throttle.

Ten years ago, in January of 2003, we published the first issue of the weekly Long Island Press after several months of experimenting with a bi-weekly music publication called the Island Ear. Transforming the Ear into an alternative newsweekly, something every major market except LI had, made sense on several levels. I’m offering this bit of history to answer a question I hear frequently: Why on earth would you willingly go into the newspaper business?

It’s a good question. These are the 2000s, after all.

At the time, our company owned and operated 92.7 WDRE/WLIR-FM, the heritage alternative rock station in New York, and the first of its kind in the nation. Complementing WLIR with an altweekly, particularly a strong, independent-minded paper that the Island sorely needed, made strategic sense. Moreover, we were running a music and event venue called the Vanderbilt in Plainview and a newspaper came in handy when promoting acts outside the format of the radio station.

These were hectic and exciting days. We were not without our foibles and gaffes (biker brawl, anyone?), but we had a lot of fun and, for a while, everything worked. Gradually, however, pieces of the company and people began to break away. The radio station was sold to Univision and the Vanderbilt was sold to Nassau OTB. Then my business partner and I went our separate ways; he stayed in radio, and I ran a restaurant inside our former facility and took the helm of the newspaper.

There are many more details, some sordid and bitter, some joyous and downright funny. But along with countless memories, they have washed away under the bridge. Throughout it all, without even realizing it, I was falling madly in love with the newspaper business. I was smitten with the Long Island Press. The staff, the words, everything. I fell in love with the work and remain hopelessly committed to it today. (Being a lousy restaurateur helped solidify my path.) To say that our industry has changed would be a gross understatement. Despite the public’s increased appetite for news and information, the splintering of interests and fragmentation of channels have presented a challenge to traditional media outlets. General interest publications such as news magazines and daily newspapers have suffered terribly during the digital revolution; alternative weeklies have declined in revenue and circulation during this period as well, though not nearly to the same extent. But it was enough to make me begin pondering a different relationship with my muse.

To be in love with your work is a gift, one that none of us takes for granted. And despite the Chicken Little prognostications for our industry, we had a good year, which has allowed me to make this decision from a position of strength instead of with my back to the wall. If anything, once we stopped resisting changes brought about by the Internet, it became a blessing instead of a curse; the growth of our digital platforms gave us the ability to disseminate information as quickly and accurately as Newsday. This eye-opening process has freed our minds from the mental constraints of the physical publishing world. Ultimately it has given us permission to ask ourselves what we want to write instead of racing to meet artificial deadlines with material we are forced to write.

On a business note, the two primary consequences of reducing the frequency of the Press is producing a bigger book and increasing its circulation. Essentially, going monthly means we are able to add news and features that satiate our artistic and journalistic desires, while staying true to our role in the marketplace.

What is our role, you may ask?

Our stated mission is to inform, entertain and educate the opinion leaders of Long Island. Our practical purpose is to make Newsday suck less. (Delicacy is not my specialty. Sorry.) Professionally, we establish a bridge between intelligent and discerning readers and the advertising community. We are essentially a vehicle for commerce and social engagement and the purveyors of truth on the Island. As the conscience of the local media and the only outlet courageous enough to challenge conventional wisdom, we take our responsibility very seriously.

The decision to transition from weekly to monthly didn’t happen in a vacuum. The success of our sister publication, Milieu magazine, and the growth of our small business program, the Bethpage Best of LI contest and App, have enabled us to grow as an organization. As we look forward to 2013, we see a jam-packed production schedule that includes 10 glossy issues of Milieu, several specialty publications, and a new project you will see on newsstands beginning this month. Our company is the custom engine behind Living Out, a new GLBT publication on LI, published by David Kilmnick and the staff of Long Island GLBT Services Network.

Since the days of WLIR and WDRE, breaking new ground is in our DNA. It’s who we are, so it’s what we do. So while it may look as though the Press is downshifting, in reality we are moving forward full throttle. It’s as though we have suffered from a multiple personality disorder all these years and are finally setting our personalities free. The Press as our professor in a corduroy jacket and leather elbow patches, Milieu as our stylish and confident feminine persona, Bethpage Best of LI as our inner entrepreneur and Living Out as our free-spirited, gay side. (Still working on a title for the foul-mouthed, neurotic Mets/Jets/Isles fan publication.) It’s been an honor to publish the Press for the past decade. Hopefully you’ll be as excited as we are about our next 10 years as a monthly. After that, we will probably just download directly into a chip surgically implanted in your skull.

From Watergate to Occupy Wall Street

The men who brought down one of the most toxic administrations in American history were lamenting the toxic state of today’s political environment. That’s pretty terrible.

This column appears in the March 22nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press

“It’s a mess.” This was the sentiment offered by Bob Woodward at a Hofstra University luncheon on Tuesday when asked to describe the current political environment. After his flight was delayed by fog in New York for the better part of the morning, Woodward was late in joining the other half of the famous Woodward and Bernstein duo at the podium in the University Club. The hour prior to his arrival was the Carl Bernstein show as he regaled the packed room of attendees with stories of their travails in journalism during a road show marking the 40th anniversary of the Watergate affair.

The luncheon was part of a series of high-profile political events Hofstra is hosting for the student body, as well as the greater Long Island community, culminating in the second presidential debate to be held there this fall. For his part, Bernstein was also chagrined at the state of politics today and his anecdotes were didactic in this regard. He broke through the haze of mythology that over time has shrouded the Watergate story and boiled it down to the simple premise that no one is above the law and the entire system of democracy must function properly in order for this notion to be upheld. It was the latter sentiment that hung in the air like the fog that had held Woodward at bay on the tarmac for hours.

Time has benefitted both men by allowing them to evaluate Watergate through the backward lens of history. Stepping away from their youthful selves (they were in their late twenties when they broke the story that catapulted them to the top of their newspaper careers), they even reevaluated some of their own beliefs such as the pardoning of Richard Nixon by his VP/successor Gerald Ford, a move that arguably cost him the election to Jimmy Carter. Bernstein recalled telephoning Woodward early that morning in 1974, saying “the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.” What he once viewed as ignominious Bernstein now considers magnanimous as Ford believed this was the best way to heal the nation from its “long nightmare,” no matter the consequences to his presidency.

Subtle reflections and anecdotes aside, the afternoon offered a glimpse into the thoughts of two devout Washington insiders who have witnessed a sea change in American politics. To be clear, these are not two old curmudgeons touting the “things ain’t what they used to be” line. They deftly fielded questions about new media and the surge of information as well as our ability to process the constant onslaught of news and commentary today. And while they were genuinely hopeful that their efforts four decades ago could be replicated by today’s reporters, they were less sanguine about whether the political climate existed to allow journalism to flourish and find its natural audience.

The men who brought down one of the most toxic administrations in American history were lamenting the toxic state of today’s political environment. That’s pretty terrible.

Bernstein spoke eloquently about the support their reporting received from The Washington Post but was careful to point out that the entire democratic machine had to function properly at every stage of the investigation in order to yield the historic results that it did. From the judicial system that forced President Nixon to hand over his personal tapes to the legislative branch that carried the articles of impeachment against the president, to the protection afforded the journalists in shielding their sources, democracy in all of its glory won the day. But Bernstein argued that it was the people who ultimately played the most critical role in judging the Nixon presidency as even staunch supporters of Nixon and the Republican Party were open enough to review the facts before them and draw their own conclusions.

Ultimately, partisanship among the elected and the electorate was cast aside for the greater good.

Bernstein went on to argue that money has corrupted the political system beyond recognition. He excoriated the Citizen’s United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allows unlimited contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals in campaigns. Furthermore, he believes the glut and immediacy of information has had the unintended consequence of allowing people to reinforce existing beliefs rather than exposing them to new ideas or multiple sides of a story.
The rancor that exists in Washington is a reflection of this phenomenon, and it has created a vicious cycle of partisanship with politicians pandering to the most extreme elements of our society. It’s mob rule. As to how the system could be fixed, no solutions were offered by either man. Perhaps this is because there are none.

The system is broken and I believe it to be irreparable. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier to build anew than to salvage a diseased and crumbling infrastructure. I’m not being pessimistic here, either. To the contrary, I’m fairly optimistic about our chances because I believe the foundation and principles that have guided us to this point are strong enough to endure the collapse and rebirth of a functioning and more equitable system no matter how painful the process may be. This hope derives from the fact that the older generations are the ones who are fixed in their ways and reinforce their existing belief systems no matter how dangerous or antiquated they are. And quite frankly, the answer to this is rather simple math: They have far less time left on the planet than we do.

It’s true that they have hoarded the world’s money and resources and polluted the Earth. It’s also true that they have left those in my generation and younger to foot the bill for their greed and consumption. They have “engineered” our food and contaminated our water and established a culture of pharmaceutical addiction. They’ve started wars around the globe in the pursuit of oil by blaming bogeymen while selling themselves as false prophets.

Now they have a credibility problem because we no longer believe. And as sure as these are the truths they bequeath to us, so too is the truth that they will all soon be dead. Even the good ones like Woodward and Bernstein cannot escape the inevitable. We can take solace, however, that although we must someday lose them, so too will we rid ourselves of people like the Koch Brothers. Death is funny that way; forever indiscriminate.

The youth of today, such as those in the Occupy movement, are wide awake and watching. Six months ago I didn’t believe this to be the case, but it’s real. So to you, Mr. Bernstein, I offer my thanks and some comfort as you and your venerable collaborator enter the winter of your lives. Your wisdom and work have better prepared us for the long, difficult task ahead.

Meeting The Media

I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching.

The Huntington Chamber of Commerce held a “Meet the Media” breakfast where Long Island and metro-area journalists talked about the year’s biggest story, the least reported story, and how to get a press release seen as a story. This was interesting. What got me, though, was when they wrestled with what they must do to be relevant themselves.  This is what I’d encourage:

Important Over Popular. I realize advertisers probably put undue emphasis on social media, but please let’s not have the peanut gallery dictate what’s covered.  I have Facebook, LinkedIn, and friends who forward things inspiring, appalling or fun to argue with. I dig Digg. I even have Twitter followers, though I’ve yet to tweet. We cherry pick and pontificate, yielding finely niched popularity contests, personal statements, and less than civil, questionably educated debate. Should journalists participate? Sure. It’s a good place to connect and study people. This isn’t journalism, though. It’s the public square.

One local newspaperman pointed this out to his fellows, and I hope others will agree: You are the journalists. You are trained to uncover truth, draw attention, and provide context. Be savvy, but don’t pander to lowest common denominators or outspoken niches. Rise above, shine a light, and lift rocks where no one has looked. Wield your critical thinking skills, access to information, experience and judgment. Connect the dots, break it all down and serve up what you think people need to know. The masses will follow.  

Good News and Bad News. We count on journalists to administer bad news. However, many otherwise intelligent people willfully ignore the media because time with it leaves the impression that the world is fully corrupted and likely a lost cause. Why? Editors know train wrecks sell.

One journalist made a point about this that was sharpened by the silence that struck before people realized his example was hypothetical: Were it revealed that the homeless girl from Brentwood stole her Intel-Semi-Finalist Winning Project from some kid in Jericho that would draw huge response. If that happened, journalists should burst our collective bubble. Thank God, it hasn’t.

Fortunately, the journalist’s point was dual. His example also showed the value and occasional front-page caliber of good news. Despite the lack of a gallows draw, everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. It was Samantha Garvey who, in the face of disheartening adversity, had the support and initiative to succeed. It is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Following the story as it brightened, I purchased a “real” newspaper to hug.  It was at least as important as ever-impending doom and gloom. Samantha moved people to reach further and open wider. Some found faith in humanity, which can be hard to come by. Others found faith in themselves. Some stepped up to help that girl and her family, generating stories of their own.

Headlines and Detail. It’s true. Few can afford to pay attention. Even those with a capacity to focus have lots to keep track of. I don’t just read local media. I like regional stuff, and world stuff, and diverse trade stuff. I’m an existentialist egghead seeking to cover all perspectives. Sometimes you’ll even catch me reading tabloids and pondering overexposed life. Mostly, I’m striving to reconcile competing worldviews in search of my own piece of truth. That’s a lot of news. I have a full life to live around that. Often I’m limited to headlines and first paragraphs, grateful for whoever invented the inverted pyramid.

This doesn’t mean I only want one paragraph. Rather, it makes me even more reliant on journalists who get the full scoop. Those who at least link source material come across as open, educated, and respectful of intelligence. Maybe you don’t see too many stats showing people clicking through long articles, but I suspect those who do use them fully, and cite the heck out of them to others. These diehards are your experts, teachers, advocates and students. They include a critical minority that leads thought, and gets things done. A journalist who can fill a few pages well has probably also got a better grasp on what those first paragraphs should say.

If paper’s too expensive for that many words, fine, and even poets like me don’t want journalists wasting space with flowery nothings. Arrange front pages to facilitate skimming and conserve words elegantly, but please don’t cut to fit shrinking attention spans. We’re dumbed down to the bone already, thanks. Give us substance.

Bottom line? I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching. We don’t need news based on what we already think we know, what the average blowhard’s willing to compute, or what will freeze attention in shocked stares. Yes, there are liars, thieves, fools and fouler things. We shouldn’t whitewash that, or minimize the media’s watchdog role. However, striving heroes and successes need spotlights too, preferably in a balance that mirrors reality. We must be warned, but also educated and inspired.

It’s unfortunate that news seems to be weighted on scales used for entertainment more than those used for academic contribution. Yes, great teachers employ both – and journalists ARE the ultimate continuing education machine — but shouldn’t we lean just a little bit more toward the latter? I think so.

Betting Long on the Island

In a world of shrinking newsrooms, Long Island has so far managed to remain a haven for journalism and educated opinion spanning a breadth of perspective.

I’m privileged to serve Leadership Huntington, a local nonprofit serving those open to learning about and getting involved in our town. One cornerstone is an intimate 9-month community leadership program that explores the Town’s history, government, businesses and nonprofits.  We explore issues, build relationships, and find we are not alone. What happens in Leadership stays in Leadership, but you can bet that at some point someone will assert that we live on Long Island, pay its taxes and endure its challenges because Long Island is the best place to live. Debates ensue and I wonder – Is it? Is this fish of an island feeding on the Eastern Seaboard really “all that”?

I think so, mostly because it’s my fish with four generations of family, all they’ve built that can’t be moved, and scores of relationships built over lifetimes…and I do like the food. Where else are corporate franchises so pressed to compete with high quality, reasonably priced local fare? Oh, and Dairy Barn — I’m not the biggest drive-through fan. I favor a world where people get off their rears periodically, but I do love Dairy Barn…

Long Island is a pretty place with sandy beaches and beautiful trees, but it’s hard to find open space among the people. Too many trees have given way to greedy sprawl. It’s hardly the only place with good cooking and historic towns. Much as I love my people, I could just visit. I have plenty of far-flung friends inviting me to be their much more affordably-placed neighbor. When I left for five years, there really was one thing I missed…

Local Media.

I’m from New York, land where the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are just a few resident heavyweights. You can get them anywhere, though, and they’re globally relevant. However, I never realized how valuable Newsday and News 12 were until I lived where local reports were scarce. Worse, they were neither substantive enough to have weight nor local enough to matter, at least not by standards I took for granted. I missed the incredible resource Long Island has in diverse platforms for local voices. There are many quality publications. Here are my favorites:

The Long Island Press is everywhere. Its sticker price belies its content.  I’m the kind who reads Rolling Stone for its in-depth reporting, and I LOVE that I can pick up a local parallel for free and find hardcore, follow-the-money journalism, with an edgy intelligence that’s doesn’t kowtow to a PC, ADHD world, but speaks frankly and maintains a daring willingness to say what it sees….the best, the worst, and all manner of mediocrity.

Then there’s the Long Island Business News, which I find more sincere and filled with facts I can use than the Wall Street Journal. Even their advertising can be newsworthy and there’s real interest in highlighting those trying to make a dent, and helping the rest of us simply trying to make a living. I may be alone in getting a rush when I receive my annual Book of Lists, but I’ve seen enough wonks maintain boxes of papers for reference to think not. I’ve also spent enough time squished into spacious venues to know I’m not alone in jostling to connect and be inspired at their celebrations highlighting the region’s greatest hopes and most profound legacy-leavers.

Closer to home (Syosset’s my address, Huntington’s my home), I relish the Long Islander.  Founded in 1838 by the great poet and newspaperman Walt Whitman, it offers a depth and breadth to Huntington that some states would be lucky to have. Some criticize staffers for being too involved. I understand this concern, generally, but this is very local. I’m glad they’re transparent about being part of the community they’ve haunted for nearly two centuries. It seems to inform rather than skew reporting. They’re more balanced than others who don’t acknowledge local interests, and cover what they find important rather than immediately popular. Staffers do seem encouraged to make a difference on their own time. They’re good neighbors who take their responsibility to their community seriously.

Then there’s the Corridor, whose nexus is Route 110. Here, honesty in influence reaches a whole new level. It’s not advertorials they’re selling, exactly, but they tell you precisely who the top sponsor is by making that the cover story. All original, all the time, the Corridor illustrates people behind the machines.  Beyond paying sponsors essential to the business model, the passion is for giving a lift to new entrepreneurs, BIG ideas, and exploring opportunities, potential pitfalls and newsworthy events. The potential is enormous.

In a world of shrinking newsrooms and vanishing rags; where you read articles in sixteen publications that have copied each other word for word, Long Island has so far managed to remain a haven for journalism and educated opinion spanning a breadth of perspective. This is not easy – intelligence doesn’t come cheap even if you can get writers to give their best for free, and that just doesn’t seem right if we can avoid it. I’m proud to budget my subscriptions, duly note the advertisers, and contribute whatever I can to keep the presses – and their reporters — running. After all, they not only enlighten debates on whether this Island is worth the challenges, they help us see how we might address them. They’re also one of the main reasons I love this place.

Indefinite Detention: NDAA for Fiscal Year 2012

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism

Originally published in the Dec. 22nd edition of the Long Island Press

Every policy in Washington is developed over time and influenced by myriad factors. Even singular foreign policy events such as the Monroe Doctrine or declarations of war are the culmination of assiduous planning and debate that take into account a progression of economic, national security and human factors. Because every policy is based upon building blocks of understanding relative to the time and circumstances in which they were developed, there is always a reason why even the most divisive or treacherous idea gains support, for better or for worse.

Such is the case with section 1031 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012 (NDAA), a provision commonly referred to as the “indefinite detention” clause. The NDAA itself has already passed both houses of Congress and currently awaits President Obama’s signature. The detention provision has garnered a great deal of attention from the blogosphere and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as it marks a decidedly dangerous shift in procedure and rights with respect to detainees in the War on Terror. The section, authored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), gives the military the ability to indefinitely detain anyone it deems to be connected to the War on Terror, thus superseding the authority of civilian courts.

The NDAA itself is a fairly routine bill that organizes funding for the military. It does not appropriate funding, which is important to understand. The original language in the 1031 amendment was troublesome enough to prompt a strong rebuke from several members of Congress and the President who threatened to veto the bill if it included this measure as written.

The revised measure attempts to codify the language with respect to detainees and assuage the fears of those who viewed this as undermining our Constitutional rights and a threat to the democratic process. The reason is that the original language was vague enough that the possibility of detaining U.S. citizens and legal aliens indefinitely without due process was left open to interpretation.

The language was “clarified” by referring specifically instead to al-Qaeda and its affiliates and exactly who has the ability to authorize detention should a person be suspected of having ties to a terrorist organization. In an attempt to calm the waters surrounding this amendment Sen. McCain—ironically the most notable former detainee in the U.S.—issued a statement saying, “the language in this bill will not affect any Americans engaging in the pursuits of their Constitutional rights.” The ACLU begs to differ.

On its website the ACLU specifically tackles the revised provision with the following: “Don’t be confused by anyone claiming that the indefinite detention legislation does not apply to American citizens. It does. There is an exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032 of the bill), but no exemption for American citizens from the authorization to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial (section 1031 of the bill). So, the result is that, under the bill, the military has the power to indefinitely imprison American citizens, but it does not have to use its power unless ordered to do so.” They go on to quote Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said section 1031 “does apply to American citizens and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland.”

Inside the Beltway there has been great consternation over this provision. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) put forward an amendment to water down the McCain/Levin provision (S.Amdt. 1107: To revise the provisions relating to detainee… to S. 1867) but it was voted down 61 to 37 in the Senate (the two senators from Alaska did not vote). Even FBI Director Robert Mueller has expressed concern that this language will inevitably lead to confusion in the field as to who has superseding authority during a terror investigation. The thought of the military being able to access and interrupt a civilian terror investigation and round up suspects unilaterally is a threat to every level of U.S. law enforcement. The fact that it potentially extends to American citizens, despite Sen. McCain’s claims to the contrary, speaks to the ambiguity of even the final language.

At first it seemed as though President Obama balked at this provision out of his understanding of the impact on American civil liberties and Constitutional rights; that the POTUS was back on message from his campaign and defending personal freedom. As it turns out, this couldn’t be further from reality. Incredibly, the White House reversed its stance and withdrew its opposition to the bill after the language was changed to include a stipulation that granted exclusive authority to arbitrate the detention provision away from the Secretary of Defense and directly to the president. In effect, Obama simply consolidated detainee power and privilege into the office of the president.

It’s important also to remember that this bill is not an appropriations bill. Unlike other spending bills that have been in the news this year that require passage to prevent certain government agencies from running out of funds, the NDAA does not fund the Pentagon, it organizes its expenditures and establishes certain rules and provisions. Therefore, nothing would theoretically be interrupted if this bill doesn’t pass. In other words, the POTUS has little to lose in fighting this provision. Instead, he caved. Again.

The question is: Why should this concern Americans? Remember that policy doesn’t develop in a vacuum. Sections 1031 and 1032 don’t stand on their own. When taken in conjunction with the Patriot Act and the government’s decision in 2009 to extend three controversial provisions that include granting the government the ability to collect information and conduct wire tapping and surveillance in secret without obtaining warrants, the detainee provision gets a little alarming. Add to this the extension of the “lone wolf” provision of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to track anyone around the world regardless of their affiliation, and things become even more ominous.

Again, each of these provisions has theoretical and practical merit, particularly when considered within the post 9-11 context in which they were established. Taken together, however, and the dangerous crack in the defense of our civil liberties begins to grow.

Take, for example, the case of Tarek Mehanna of Massachusetts. Mehanna, it would seem, despises America. He even went so far as to seek Jihadist training abroad though he was rebuffed. Today he is being prosecuted, not just for attempting to join a jihadist organization, but also for promoting jihadist material online. A recent Mother Jones article links the Mehanna case to the killing of “Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Imam whose ability to give sermons in colloquial English made him the symbol of a new era of homegrown extremism.” Most of us harbor little sympathy for either of these men, but the government’s response and action toward both in conjunction with the steady erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and the indefinite detention clause of the NDAA speak to the steady rise in domestic militarization.

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism. This is not hyperbole but rather a strict interpretation of fascism as an ideology that revokes individual rights under the cloak of nationalism and consolidates domestic tribunal authority under the military controlled by a singular authority.

There are two reasons most Americans care little about the debate surrounding the detention provision. One is that most people are law-abiding Americans to whom criticizing America and promoting terrorist speech is anathema. That’s a good thing. The other is that most people probably haven’t even heard of it because the debate, while raging behind closed doors in Congress and inside the blogosphere, is largely absent in the traditional media. The only plausible explanations for this omission are either that corporate media outlets don’t think it’s important or they are afraid of the potential consequences to their coverage.

Let’s assume that the issue of whether the military should be allowed to supersede an FBI investigation of U.S. citizens and indefinitely detain suspects without evidence or the requirement to divulge any of its actions is important to all of us and examine the latter. What could traditional news outlets be concerned about? Take everything covered to this point and consider the following scenario:

A credible journalist reporting on the Mehanna case would need to cite the remarks Mehanna posted on the Internet that prompted authorities to investigate him and consider him an imminent threat. This same journalist would now be technically guilty of exactly the same crime as Mehanna if he is convicted on this count and U.S. law establishes the precedent that reporting jihadist sentiments is an act of terrorism. This would be treasonous behavior calling into question the strength and breadth of the First Amendment. Theoretically the government can not only begin surveillance and wire-tapping on the journalist, the military can decide to intervene and indefinitely detain this person without due process.

Think it can’t happen? Well, technically it can because this entire scenario would be legal in the eyes of the government under the strictest interpretation of the new law. Of course it can happen. This is McCarthyism minus the hearings and histrionics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It was during the McCarthy years that indefinite detention was first contemplated and even briefly enacted, though it was never officially implemented or acted upon. For as long as that journalist/blogger/activist/whomever can be considered a “Lone Wolf” or perhaps linked to affiliates of al-Qaeda—an organization that is by nature indefinable—his or her constitutional rights as a citizen can be suspended. The War on Terror as conceived by George W. Bush and codified domestically under the Patriot Act, is an active and permanent war in the spirit and definition of the Cold War. If the Bush Doctrine allowed the U.S. to wage war on nations without provocation, then the McCain/Levin provision brings the doctrine home.

The moment Obama affixes his signature to the bill will mark a seminal shift in our democracy. It will also mark the tragic moment that the Obama presidency becomes indistinguishable from the Bush Administration.

 

Main photo: AP – A June file photo of the sun rising over Camp Delta detention compound at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba.

Below right: AP file photo of Robert Mueller. Below Left: AP file photo of Tarek Mehanna