Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Question is One of Policy

Pretty pictures, taken at night from a rented helicopter by Trevor Paglen, contributor to "The Intercept":

So far, "The Intercept," Pierre Omidyar's first of a myriad of digital "magazines" intended to transform media in the Post-Modren Era, has been very weak tea indeed.

There is -- so far -- very little content, and what there is tends to be recycled, rehashed, and recapitulated  from previous work by the participants in the venture, or -- as in the case of Jeremy Scahill's lead article  (also bylined Greenwald, but there is no indication of his contribution to the piece) about the NSA providing targeting data to drone pilots and others responsible for killing various suspects in foreign lands -- warmed over old news with a dollop of the Snowden NSA Trove mentioned for spice. (Nothing in the Trove is actually clearly identified in Jeremy's piece).

Froomkin offers nothing new in his think piece, nor does Greenwald in his froth-laden but largely substance-free polemic attacking James Clapper and "the media". There has been no word, so far, from the third member of "The Intercept's" editorial triumvirate, Laura Poitras, who has seemed strangely silent about the venture from the moment of its "leak"  to the public last October to its launch early  Monday morning -- and up to last night, the last time I looked in on the site. As for the night-time pictures of NatSec facilities -- mostly their vast parking lots -- shown in the header video above and featured in large format stills taken by Trevor Paglen (a previously unmentioned contributor) ...yes? Pretty. But....? "What does a Surveillance State look like?" Trevor asked portentously.

Is it really buildings and parking lots at night? Ask somebody who's been through the Surveillance/Security State's wringer. There are plenty of them, quite a few of them very easy to contact and who are more than willing to tell their tale; and if there are no videos or photographs of what they have been through, there is always the option of hiring an illustrator or two to help us visualize what they are telling us...

The weakness of "The Intercept" has mostly been excused by apologists as the result of  a "rushed launch" -- they wanted to get something up and running for some reason. Now. Just wait, they say. It may be a somewhat rough and limited start, but things will smooth out and content will increase over time. Give it a chance. Of course, that is their standard response to criticism of this titanic and heroic new media venture funded by press-shy billionaire, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. From the outset they were saying, "It hasn't launched yet; wait till it launches before asking questions or criticizing. Its content will be the proof of its merit. Wait till it launches!"

Then it launched, just after midnight on February 10, with no prior announcement of the actual launch date (only a vague reference to "early next week.") "The launch was rushed," They said. "We wanted to get content up now, rather than wait any longer. You need to wait till there is a body of work before criticizing. This is only the beginning. There is much, much more to come. It's not fair to criticize it now."

When critics pointed out the startling whiteness and maleness of "The Intercept" staff, apologists tried to claim that since First Look's owner is "brown", the ratio b/w ratio is higher than one thinks, and who cares anyway about the gender of writers as long as their product is good? Clue: not all Persians are "brown." Most, in fact, are quite as "white" as any European.

Why they wanted to launch it now, with such soft rather than hard news is a mystery.  But then there are many mysteries associated with First Look Media and its entry into the mainstream media marketplace. "Mainstream" is a term I use advisedly in this case. For what has been put up so far is about as "mainstream" media-friendly as anything on the internet.

From my perspective, the launch of "The Intercept" is a disappointment, and for all intents and purposes, a flop. There is very little -- almost no --  "there" there.

The weakness of "The Intercept" is partly due to its striking lack of content. Given the high-caliber staff and the months of prep time they've had, that crew and its stringers should be able to roll out at least a dozen decent articles a day, a blockbuster or two a week. At the current rate of publication, however, that isn't going to happen in our lifetimes. In fact, the molasses-slow rate of posts at "The Intercept" is remarkable given the nearly constant output Greenwald alone has been noted for since he entered the media market almost a decade ago. Most of the others involved are certainly capable of multiple posts a day on their own.

Given the huge amount of money Omidyar claims to be investing in the venture, the striking lack of content cannot be rationally attributed to any lack of funding.

What's slowing production to absolute crawl might be of some interest -- if some intrepid investigative journalist wanted to look into it -- but from my perspective, it is what it is. A very, very slow and cautious entry into the high-stakes -- higher-level -- digital media market with nothing so far that might offend a certain faction of investors in that market. With nothing so far that would even interest them.

Jeremy's lead article for "The Intercept" is a long and very detailed account focusing on the NSA's provision of telephone location and metadata used for targeting suspected militants and "terrorists" abroad. The upshot is that the drone pilots rely much more on signals intelligence provided by the NSA to the CIA and the military for targeting their quarry in the various theaters of the (Glorious) War on (Some) Terror(ism) than they do on informants and on-the-ground human intelligence, and because of that, drones take out significant numbers of civilians in addition to, or sometimes rather than, the militants and/or terrorists who are allegedly being targeted.

We knew that.

In fact, the use of cell-phone meta data for missile targeting purposes has been known and extensively reported since the 1990s, and its use for the locating, targeting and liquidation of militants and terrorists in the (G)WO(S)T(ism) has been hailed for many years. Jeremy is not telling us anything that has not been reported previously about it, not even that the NSA produces and provides a significant amount of the information used for targeting and extermination purposes. Strangely enough, it's their job.

The issue isn't that the NSA provides this information despite all the hyperventilating over this "revelation."

The issue is the policies that allow and enable the more or less random identification and extermination of "suspects." That's the problem.

But Jeremy never questions those policies in his inaugural post for "The Intercept." This is particularly jarring given his large body of work to date, most of which aggressively questions the policies involved in the targeting and liquidation of "suspects" -- leading to the fiery dismemberment and death of thousands of ordinary villagers going about their daily lives,  together with an abundance of women, children and old people.

This is what a Surveillance State looks like, but let's not show pictures of that. God knows. Not that!

It might harsh somebody's mellow, and we wouldn't want that.

A follow up Think Piece was posted at "The Intercept" by Dan Froomkin some days later that went over the various matters Greenwald, et al, have covered since the Big Reveal of the Snowden Leak in Hong Kong last summer, and Froomkin, like Jeremy, also does not question the policy of "Death From Above" (h/t Starship Troopers) but implying, as Jeremy does, that if only these things were done better, targeting and killing the right suspects only, all would be fine.

It's jarring, extremely jarring, to see this kind of apologetics for criminal policies wherever they appear, but for it to appear in the inaugural posts at "The Intercept" is worse in many ways. Together with Greenwald's jeremiad against Clapper and the Media (writ large), but not against the policies nor the agencies involved in maintaining the Killer State, I think it shows quite clearly that this digital publication is intended to advance a factional -- but pro-kill -- agenda that doesn't question the underlying policies of the more and more generalized (Glorious) War on (Some) Terror(ism) but only questions the tactics employed and the merits of the lead intelligence agency (ie: NSA) providing sometimes inadequate or erroneous information on who should be liquidated this time. 

When I've brought up some of my reservations about Jeremy's piece specifically, I've been told it's "just one small article," and that because Jeremy has written other things questioning these policies and tactics, I shouldn't be concerned that this one doesn't do so. I disagree, strongly. His article continues to be the lead article for "The Intercept" and thus it sets the tone for the publication and its point of view. There is -- so far -- nothing at "The Intercept" that questions the policy of "Death From Above." So long as those policies are not being questioned by the writers at "The Intercept," but only those who are carrying them out and the tactics they are using are held to account, then I'll be of the opinion that this thing is a joke, a bad one, being played on people who convinced themselves that finally there would be a strong, independent, investigative, antagonistic media outlet that they could believe in...  So far, it consists of little more than polemics and propaganda.

The way it's going so far, it might turn out more like the Obama campaign vs the reality of the Obama administration...

Oh dear...

The question then will be "How long will it take readers to catch on?" 

ADDENDUM: In other fora and communications, I've pointed out that while neither Jeremy nor any of the other writers at "The Intercept" have so far questioned the policies of "Death From Above" -- at least not in their writing for "The Intercept" -- Jeremy did go on Democracy Now! and was very aggressive in raising questions about it, as he usually is in both his writing and in personal appearances. That's part of why I was so perplexed by his failure to question those policies in his inaugural article at "The Intercept."

Earlier today, though, I saw an interview by Jake Tapper with Jeremy on CNN -- and shockingly, to me -- again Jeremy did not question those policies. What is going on? Is he tailoring what he says to what he thinks his audience wants to hear? That, unfortunately, was one of the criticisms I saw of "Dirty Wars," both the book and the movie. Not only was he suspected of tailoring his message, but he was accused of pulling punches so as to achieve "mainstream" acceptance. And this was well before his Academy Award nomination.

"Mainstream acceptance" seems to be very high on the list of Things Desirable by "The Intercept's" team, as they fluff and puff themselves up over every positive (and some negative) mainstream notice they receive, as they strut and preen over awards they may or may not get, as they hob and nob with the modestly high and mighty (and in Greenwald's case, go on every television venue he can find that will book him.)  I have little doubt that all the appearances and interviews they do with the mainstream media they supposedly are skewering and ostensibly loathe must be interfering with their journalism... mustn't it?

And finally, as for the extraordinarily slow and stately pace of publication at "The Intercept," I find that the site has a very active Twitter account (there is was also a pretty hilarious parody account which could be confused with the real one, sadly now suspended... but wait! It's baaaack! "The extra underscore is pronounced "WOOSH!" to illustrate the excitement of it all!" "Pierre" had that one shut down; another arose; it was shut down, too. Now there is this one... how long before "Pierre" has it's plug pulled, too? Billionaire Power, yeah baby! ) and a chock full Facebook page, both of which are being constantly curated and updated, unlike the main site itself. Which just sort of... sits there, belonely and forlorn.

Even the comment sections at the main site -- which rather quickly accumulated thousands of posts as predicted -- have pretty much ground to a slow crawl, after, of course, a not unexpected descent in to brawls and madness. There's a reason Greenwald's commentariat and the comment sections of his various outlets were sometimes referred to as a pit of vipers...

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