Alexei Wood’s acquittal in the J20 trial gives independent journalists uneasy relief

Journalist Alexei Wood and five other defendants were acquitted of charges that could have led to decades in prison, after they were picked up by police in a “kettling” operation to stop the rioting in downtown Washington DC on Inauguration Day, protesting Donald Trump’s presidency.

Democracy Now presents an interview here between Amy Goodman, Brett Cohen and Mr. Alexei Wood, along with a 51-minute video here.

Other sites (such as Truthout, even more so than this one) have used this case as a reason to phrase appeals for money for independent journalism, claiming that the current government is hostile to journalists.

There is a lot going on here.  First, the Trump administration is a bit hostile (on Twitter especially) to established liberal media (like CNN).  He has not turned out to be hostile to independent bloggers or “citizen journalists” as I had once feared he might (as on my Nov. 7, 2016 post).  Perhaps he sees independent bloggers as calling out the media on insufficient reporting on some aspects of national security threats (like North Korea and EMP).   In countries like Egypt, Turkey, and particularly China, governments have been very harsh on independent media and sometimes have control of the more established channels.  Trump is nowhere close to that.  But Trump’s joking about wanting to reserve the right to jail political opponents whom he defeated (Mrs. Clinton) is not funny.

Secondly, there is the effect of social media tribalism, which now seems to have infected both the right and left.  There is an impression that someone who reports on a controversial group just to make a name for himself (if not already part of a journalistic establishment) is merely giving credibility to dangerous groups.  By that reasoning, reporters who filmed the J20 protests were giving credibility to Antifa-like protests but moreover to the violence that would accompany any “revolution”.  In that sense, the reporters are thought to have incited violence, despite the usual standard of “imminent threat of lawless action”. This sort of thinking has been particularly applied to people who might have wanted to to cover extreme right-wing groups or white supremacists.  This kind of reporting might be more acceptable if done by an established journalist supposedly from the other side (like Kamau Bell’s series “United Shades of America” on CNN covering the KKK).

I recently traveled to Washington VA and Flint Hill VA, to report the aggressive lawn pamphleting in the area by KKK elements. (Oh, please, don’t mention the People’s Party’s lettuce boycotts in the early 1970s.)  Does my doing so only give importance to such activity?   But I did not even know about the Charlottesville rightwing march on Aug. 11 in advance, although I might have been tempted to “watch” and film had I known.  I did know about the protests planned for Inauguration Day but simply stayed home to listen to the speech.  It’s conceivable that had I been there and filmed I could have been kettled and charged.  I have covered BLM marches but mainly filmed and “participated” minimally.  I visited Baltimore Sandtown right after the riots, but some independent journalists reported being pinned down by weapons fire and combat during the 2015 event.

Progressive interview with Mr. Wood.

(Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017 at 11 PM EST)

Who “gets to be recognized” as a legitimate “journalist”?

So, who gets to call the self a journalist?

The recent queasiness in Congress and the FCC about matters like Section 230 and network neutrality bring this question back.  Yes, I’ve talked about the controversies over “citizen journalism” before, like the day before the Election on November 8, 2016.  And recently (July 19) I encountered a little dispute about access requiring “press credentials”.

The nausea that President Donald Trump says the “media” gives him seems to be directed at mainstream, larger news organizations with center-liberal bias – that is, most big city newspapers, and most broadcast networks, and especially CNN – he calls them all purveyors of “fake news” as if that were smut.  More acceptable are the “conservative” Fox and OANN.  Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos (with his own new site) seem to be in the perpetual twilight of a tidally locked planet.  Perhaps I am in the same space;  Trump doesn’t seem to have the same antipathy (or hostility) to “independent” or “citizen” journalists (which I had feared he would when he said he didn’t trust computers), but a lot of other people do.

I digress for a moment. Coincidentally has set up his “Trump News Channel” on Facebook (Washington Post story) but the URL for it reverts to “Dropcatch”, with Twitter won’t even allow as a link as supposed spam.

The basic bone politicians and some business people pick with journalists is that “they” spectate, speculate and criticize, but don’t have to play, like right out of the script of the Netflix thriller “Rebirth”.  Politicians, hucksters, sales professionals, and perhaps many legitimate business professionals, and heads of families – all of them have accountabilities to real people, whether customers or family members.  They have to go to bat for others.  They have to manipulate others and concern themselves with the size of their “basis”.  Journalists can do this only through double lives.

I could make the analogy to kibitzing a chess game, rather than committing yourself to 5 hours of concentration in rated game.  (Yes, in the position below, Black’s sacrifice hasn’t worked.)

But, of course, we know that renowned journalists have paid their dues, most of all in conflict journalism. Sebastian Junger broke his leg working as an arborist before writing “The Perfect Storm”. Bob Woodruff has a plate in his skull but recovered completely after being wounded in Iraq. Military services actually have their own journalists and public affairs.  Young American University journalism graduate Trey Yingst helped found News2share before becoming a White House correspondent, but had done assignments in Ukraine, Gaza, Rwanda, Uganda, Ferguson, and was actually pinned down at night during the Baltimore riots in April 2015.

That brings us back to the work of small-fry, like me, where “blogger journalism” has become the second career, pretty much zoning out other possible opportunities which would have required direct salesmanship of “somebody else’s ideas” (“We give you the words”), or much more ability to provide for specific people (maybe students) in directly interpersonal ways.

Besides supporting my books, what I generally do with these blogs is re-report what seem like critical general-interest news stories in order to “connect the dots” among them.  Sometimes, I add my own footage and observations when possible, as with a recent visit to fire-damaged Gatlinburg.  With demonstrations (against Trump, about climate change, for LGBT) I tend to walk for a while with some of them but mainly film and report (especially when the issue is narrower, such as with Black Lives Matter).  I generally don’t venture into dangerous areas (I visited Baltimore Sandtown in 2015 in the day time).

I generally don’t respond to very narrow petitions for emergency opposition to bills that hurt some narrow interest group.  What I want to do is encourage real problem solving.  Rather than join in “solidarity” to keep Congress from “repealing” Obamacare by itself, I want to focus on the solutions (subsidies, reinsurance, the proper perspective on federalism, etc).  But I also want to focus attention on bigger problems, many of them having to do with “shared responsibility” or “herd immunity” concepts, that don’t get very consistent attention from mainstream media (although conservative sites do more on these matters).  These include filial responsibility, the tricky business of reducing downstream liability issue on the Web (the Section230 issue, on the previous post, where I said Backpage can make us all stay for detention), risks taken by those offering hosting to immigrants (refugees and asylum seekers), and particularly national security issues like the shifting of risk from asymmetric terror back to rogue states (North Korea), and most of all, infrastructure security, especially our three major electric power grids.

My interest in book self-publication and citizen journalism had started in the 1990s with “gays in the military”, linking back to my own narrative, and then expanded gradually to other issues about “shared risks” as well as more traditional ideas about discrimination.  I had come into this “second career” gradually from a more circumscribed world as an individual contributor in mainframe information technology. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had suddenly become a particularly rich issue in what it could lead to in other areas.  So, yes, I personally feel that, even as an older gay man, the LGBTQ world has more to worry about than bathroom bills (Pulse).  I think the world we have gotten used to could indeed be dialed back by indignation-born “purification” (as a friend calls it) if we don’t get our act together on some things (like the power grid issue).  But I don’t believe we should have to all become doomsday preppers either.  We should solve these problems.

A critical component of journalism is objectivity and presentation of Truth, as best Truth can be determined. Call it impartiality. You often hear Trump supporters say that, whatever Trump’s crudeness and ethical problems, what Trump promotes helps them and particularly family members who depend on them.  Of course many journalists have families without compromising their work. But this observation seems particularly relevant to me.  I don’t have my own children largely because I didn’t engage in the desires or the behaviors than result in having that responsibility.  I can “afford” to remain somewhat emotionally aloof from a lot of immediate needs.

In fact, I’ve sometimes had to field the retort from some people that, while some of the news out there may be dire, I don’t need to be the person they hear it from.  I could be putting a target on my own back and on others around me.  Indeed, some people act as if they believe that everything happens within a context of social hierarchy and coercion.

My own “model” for entering the news world has two aspects that seem to make it vulnerable to future policy choices (like those involving 230 or maybe net neutrality). One of them is that it doesn’t pay its own way.  I use money from other sources, both what I earned and invested and somewhat what I inherited (which arguably could be deployed as someone else’s safety net, or which could support dependents, maybe asylum seekers if we had a system more like Canada’s for dealing with that issue).  That means, it cannot be underwritten if it had to be insured, for example.  I can rebut this argument, or course, by saying, well, what did you want me to do, get paid to write fake news?  That could support a family.  (No, I really never believed the Comet Ping Pong stuff, but the gunman who did believe it an attack it claimed he was an “independent journalist.”  I do wonder how supermarket tabloids have avoided defamation claims even in all the years before the Internet – because nobody believed them?  Some people obviously do.)   No, they say. we want you to use the background that supported you as a computer programmer for decades and pimp our insurance products. (“We give you the words,” again.)  Indeed, my withdrawal from the traditional world where people do things through sales middlemen makes it harder for those who have to sell for a living.

The other aspect is that of subsumed risk.  I can take advantage of a permissive climate toward self-distribution of content, which many Internet speakers and small businesses take for granted, but which can be seriously and suddenly undermined by policy, for the “common good” under the ideology of “shared responsibility”.  I won’t reiterate here the way someone could try to bargain with me over this personally – that could make an interesting short film experiment. Yes, there can be court challenges, but the issues litigated with CDA and COPA don’t reliably predict how the First Amendment applies when talking about distribution of speech rather than its content, especially with a new literalist like Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

A lot of “Trader Joe” type people would say, there should be some external validation of news before it is published.   Of course, that idea feeds the purposes of authoritarian rules, like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, or perhaps Donald Trump.  But we could see that kind of environment someday if we don’t watch out.

(Posted: Monday, August 7, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)

Trump could crack down on journalists and bloggers in various ways, but even Obama has been more aggressive with classified info leaks


As the chances that Donald Trump comes from behind on the road and wins the presidency in extra innings (and holds off the courts in the bottom half of the inning) journalists and bloggers have to watch out.  One of the items pointed out by the New York Times as something Trump could do by Executive order is prosecute and jail journalists who publish leaked classified information.

Generally, the literature says that right now the government cannot enjoin publication of a leak, it could conceivably prosecute in some cases, probably under the idea of “mens rea”, that the writer is reckless and wants to inflict harm.  Well, harm to whom – the political establishment, or to real people or real troops in the field?

The obvious incidents that come up are, for example, the Pentagon Papers, unveiling the damaging secrets of the Vietnam War (which affected my life), then Wikileaks (centered around Chelsea Manning) and then Edward Snowden.

Trump could conceivably order many more prosecutions, or take other measures like putting people on the TSA No-fly list(which Laura Poitras had to deal with for a while)   .   In fact the Obama administration may have been more aggressive in a few cases than Bush was, and Hillary Clinton could prove more assertive on this issue than we expect.

Generally, mainstream journals take the side of journalists.  But the Huffington Post ran a piece in 2013 by David Schanzer that emphaszes the criminality of many leaks.  He also mentions amateur bloggers, who might feel incentivized to circulate a leak “because they can”.

But the “Law Fare Blog” discussion on freedom of the press and classified information, and an Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf, present a picture more favorable to journalists. Both (especially Atlantic) point out that cracking down on journalist won’t prevent a “criminally” inclined DOD (or NSA or CIA) contractor from leaking again.  The Atlantic article, referring to another piece on NPR, refers to the issue of possibly “licensing” journalists (Aug. 23) and having distinct tiers of journalism.  To a minor extent, we already have that – I can’t get “press credentials” easily to go to a White House briefing.  A professional blog posting on Reuters explains a couple of obscure cases where prosecution was pursued.

One aspect of this whole discussion is asymmetry.  In the age of ungated user-generated content, it’s more likely that an “amateur” really will “stumble” on major classified information.  This could particularly be the case with subjects like the location of hazardous waste or weapons components, or with known fugitives or terror suspects.   In the period after 9/11, on a few occasions, apparent “tips” were actually passed to me.  The most recent occurrence like this happened in the summer of 2005.  I did call law enforcement at least three times (and did not reveal what had been sent), and in 2005 I did have a 20-minute phone conversation with an FBI agent in Philadelphia over an email concerning OBL.  The “blessing in disguise” of social media (for security) is that amateurs may actually learn of threats that escape authorities because of more specific knowledge of monikers or clues buried in social media. ”See something, say something” matters.

On the other hand, some “in power” don’t like the idea that “amateurs” can magnify matters that don’t directly concern them (something I have called “gratuitous speech” on my legacy blogs).  This viewpoint could lead to pressures in the legal area to weaken downstream liability protections for providers (like Section 230), or to more occurrences of litigating even over people who provide mere hyperlinks (or embeds) to defamatory material first published by others.

Observers have expressed concern that Trump will try to undermine first amendment protections for speech normally legitimate –  under current standards, criticism (or “the Opinion Rule”) is not libel. But technically it is already illegal to republish material the speaker knows is legally classified, and probably it’s technically illegal even to link to it in a mere tweet.  But changing standards of defamation law may actually be harder to get past a conservative, Scalia-like court than it would be with our current SCOTUS.

Melania Trump spoke today about the “harshness” of Internet communication, especially in a world accessed by kids and teenagers, and she did say she wanted to address cyberbullying as potential first lady. That seems ironic given her husband’s sometimes crude behavior online. But Trump himself has been heard to say, people have become too dependent on the Internet and computers, they aren’t completely safe anymore.  That doesn’t sound good.  But he was critical of the US surrender of control of domain name registration to ICANN, on supposed deference to free speech.  If he gets elected, we’ll have to figure this out fast.


Update: Nov. 5

With Trump close in the polls, I want to reiterate what sounds like a call to do emergency shutdowns of some social media sites (or is it just specific accounts, which already happens), made in a hearing (at 1:10) in November 2015 after the Paris attacks (regardinf ISIS recruiting and maybe steganography, an idea that was circulated a lot after  9/11 and then forgotten). The ARS Technical story by Jon Brodkin refers to Joe Barton, and is called “To stop ISIS, let’s shut down websites and social media.”  I do get the “moral hazard” idea he is clumsily suggesting.

(Posted on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 at 2:15 PM EDT)

ABC covers painful controversy over paying ransom to terrorists, or letting families do it privately


Tonight, both ABC 20-20 and ABC Nightline approached the incredibly existential and sensitive topic of paying ransom to terrorists, especially whether families should be allowed to raise funds privately to do so. The broadcast was called “The Girl Left Behind” (detailed review on Blogger) and concerned the story of Kayla Mueller, kidnapped in Aleppo while working with Doctor’s Without Borders, and finally murdered by ISIS after an excruciating series of events.

Maybe the New York Times has the best answer for this dilemma, which only governments or states could implement, here, in an op-ed by David McAdams, Feb. 3, 2013.

The US government, of course, maintains that paying ransom can encourage more kidnapping overseas, as indeed it would. The State Department maintains that Americans should follow travel advisories closely, as it claims that one of the purposes of these warnings is to point out that the US government might not be able to protect “you” in certain hostile or less developed countries, especially those with dictatorship, war or conflict or religious intolerance (or sometimes abuse of specific populations, like LGBT).  Good questions come up, for example, with helping journalists covering conflicts and possibly living with or traveling with troops (which would presumably protect them).   Questions come up about the intrinsic value of normal diplomatic relations.  The government says that, short of an unlikely Special Forces rescue, there may be nothing it can do without endangering other Americans abroad. More recently, the Obama administrations seems to have intimated it will “look the other way” on privately funded ransom payments, which have been regarded as illegal. If they are allowed, in some circles private citizens could be pressured to participate against their own belief systems.

One other question would be, what happens if foreign enemies were to abduct people inside western countries (even inside the US).  Could ransom be offered then?  (Recently the government has said that it might be open to this in “sting” operations.)  This could become a dangerous development in the future.  It wouldn’t necessarily be confined to “radical Islamic terrorism”, to quote Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.  China has been known to abduct its own journalists in other countries, like Thailand.  Could this happen to Americans? Trump has indeed said, “China is not your friend.”

Still an opposite-leaning question is that major humanitarian organizations (like Doctors with0ut Borders) and sometimes faith-based groups send professionals or other young adults as volunteers into conflict-torn or unstable areas.  They could not send volunteers there if at least their own private supporters were not allowed to get them out.

(Published: Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016 at 1:30 AM EDT)

Journalists in peril, even in the U.S. now? What about the “amateurs”?


Margaret Sullivan has an important article on the safety of journalists in the Style section of the Washington Post today, Monday, July 18, 2016, “Free speech in peril, both far and near.”  She talks about the self-defense training journalists took before going to Cleveland for the RNC this week, as well as the illogic of some of the security rules in a state which allows open carry.  She wonders if this (Indians’s) baseball game (Progressive Field is nearby, replacing the old “Mistake by the Lake” of my boyhood) will end “Second Amendment 1, First Amendment 0”, very much a visiting team’s non-walkoff.


She does give a nod to the Committee to Protect Journalists and to “Pen America: The Freedom to Write”.

She also talks about the effectiveness of citizen journalism (my post here July 16). She makes the odd comment that this development adds to the number of people in peril (which in some cases could included people connected to the citizen journalists, like family, if they encounter combative enemies). She also credits citizen journalists for filling in all the details left out by the main media, “keeping them honest” (a trademarkable phrase from Anderson Cooper on CNN).  Still, her article leaves a nagging question about people like me who might not have “paid their dues” they way even Anderson Cooper (or Sebastian Junger) did early in their careers.


Why do authoritarian regimes crack down so hard on “ordinary people” as bloggers?  Do they really fear their power bases are in real peril from what the amateurs expose?  I think it is something more basic and sinister: they imprison people (like Ai Weiwei in China) or hack them (like in some attacks om Bangladesh) “just for authority” (a phrase I used as a child to protest my father), to prove that a political hierarchy imparts real meaning (if in fact that meaning is “imaginary”).

There is something disturbing, sometimes, about some of my own postings, which seem gratuitous to some people.  Why would I discuss a case of a particular casualty of a random bomb explosion in Central Park in New York on a blog post unless I was prepared “personally” to raise money for the victim?  (There is a personal sensitivity which for now I will skip, but return to later.)  Or, later, why would I present  (by YouTube embed) the rant of a “deranged” man who had attacked police recently?

In the later case, I was discussing “self-published” books and that particular assailant had created a curious or bizarre series of “self-help” books on Amazon (taken down today). So I was covering another wrinkle about self-publishing, a very important topic for me.  The danger would be that an impressionable or immature visitor finds the post, watches the video, and then doesn’t see that it is layered in a discussion of another point,, and wants to act on what the video says, out of context.  Am I responsible for that?  (The New Testament might say, well, yes;  I must become my brother’s keeper.)  Actually, this posting has a second “layered” point: to present the nature of “combativeness” in many adversaries (the part about actually “fighting back” rather than just protesting hit a nerve ending).  This person was as aggressive and intolerant as anyone in radical Islam, but came from a different source of antagonism.

All of this goes to the subject of “implicit content”, which came up in the COPA trial (2006), It came up when I was substitute teaching in 2005 with respect to the context of an on-line “screenplay” I had authored (details ).  The basic point it that I did not have an obvious “purpose” for what looked like self-defamation, so others could presume that it had been intended to incite others. There was an unbelievable set of coincidences that had set up this incident, however. The whole concept of “implicit content” could mean that, if as an amateur “citizen”, I’m not entitled to be viewed as a “true” journalist (or author), then I should be held accountable for what any unstable person does if he just “looks at the picture” and (as my mother would have said), is “given an idea” when taking a portion of a posting out of larger “layered” context, as is common in real journalism. Does the validity of speech depend on the identity of the speaker?  Maybe sometimes.


One other note: I get a little irritated by bombastic pleas from progressive news sites about their fund-raising campaigns, as if I needed them to speak for me.  I don’t need them now, but maybe some day I will.  What if Donald Trump actually wins?

(Published: Monday, July 18, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)