Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bradley Manning Support Network Under Army Investigation, Plus Bonus Bad News

The Bradley Manning Support Network is under investigation by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, as revealed by a copy of a Freedom of Information Act request response. In this case, the request for records pertaining to the activist umbrella group was denied, but the reason for the denial - that "an active investigation is in progress with an undetermined completion date" - is obviously news in and of itself, which is presumably why none of the infotainment outlets posing as news organizations have reported on the development thus far.

As of 1:30 PM CST, the FOIA response indicating that a network of activists who advocate on behalf of a celebrated accused whistleblower are being pursued by a branch of the U.S. military has not been mentioned by a single news organization with a web presence. Searching Google News brings up nothing; searching Google itself brings up two blogs with what we may presume to be very little reach (building up an audience has less to do with quality than it does with packaging, which is why Thomas Friedman is so popular). Quite possibly there will be mentions of all this by tomorrow in at least a few more places - but having spent years working in the media, analyzing the media, and sometimes being covered by the media, it wouldn't surprise me if coverage were relegated to a handful of specialist sites and perhaps Wired (which itself does some of the best and most crucial reporting on such issues as the NSA Utah Data Center only to have its revelations ignored by general outlets in favor of Secret Service prostitution scandals).

Complaints of this sort are often brushed off by journalists with the more "respectable" outlets with the response that everyone has their pet issue that they believe deserves special attention. In this case, such an excuse wouldn't hold water, nor does today being Sunday serve to explain away the complete absence of coverage thus far. Back in early 2010, when the Wikileaks Twitter account put forth a series of messages to the effect that one of its volunteers had been stopped and questioned and that others were being aggressively pursued by agents of the State Department, there was zero coverage of the incident at all. And the claims of state interference weren't exactly dubious; just a few days prior, Wikileaks had released Pentagon documents that proved the U.S. military was already considering how best to disrupt the organization. Back then, Wikileaks just wasn't on the radar of the U.S. media on the whole. Only later in the year would editors collectively agree that Wikileaks was indeed maybe some sort of big deal - soon after which it collectively decided that it was easier and more fun to ask probing questions about whether or not Julian Assange thinks highly of himself than it was to look through the actual documents that were providing to the world. And of course it became not only clear, but abundantly and repeatedly clear, that a number of covert operations were in the works against Wikileaks and individuals close to it. At any rate, they would eventually agree that this strange new transparency group was shaping up to be a major story, but only long after it had become obvious. Its notability having been eventually established even by the American media reckoning, there's no viable excuse on "Sorry, We Don't Agree That's Notable" grounds for that incident to have been entirely ignored. It's just hard to look back at that day and make the case that it didn't represent a massive failure on the part of the media to see a story coming, even when plenty of other observers saw it quite clearly. 

There's probably more at play here than simply groupthink. In both the Wikileaks/State Department incident and the incident I'm bitching about this time, the story was only apparent to the extent that one kept an eye on certain Twitter feeds, particular reddit sections, and other relatively newfangled venues of the sort that didn't exist ten years ago and which still have attached to them certain vaguely disreputable, quasi-comical connotations in the minds of countless producers and editors. Meanwhile, more and more stories of the sort that clearly merit coverage can be expected to emanate from these allegedly unconventional nooks and crannies, the info itself having been placed on Scribd or pastebin or some other such thing instead of delivered in a press release or spoken at a podium by some well-paid liar. At some point, those whose profession calls upon them to be aware of what's happening are going to have to learn to contend with how much of those happenings are now happening on online thingamajigs with silly names. 

To be fair, some professionals of that sort have indeed learned how much data can be gleaned from well-executed examinations of social networking platforms. Unfortunately, most of them work in the surveillance and intelligence sectors of government agencies and for private contractors, rather than newsrooms, and are engaged in keeping tabs on such parties as the Bradley Manning Support Network.