March 29, 2020

Soldier’s Lawyers Rest Case With a Defense of WikiLeaks’ Journalistic Role

The professor, Yochai Benkler, who wrote a widely cited academic article about WikiLeaks and the evolution of watchdog journalism in the Internet era, testified that at the time of Private Manning’s leaks the group had established itself as playing a reputable and valuable journalistic role by publishing documents about corporate misconduct and government corruption around the world.

“It’s a clear, distinct component of what in the history of journalism we see as high points,” he said, “where journalists are able to come in and say, here’s a system operating in a way that is obscure to the public, and now we’re able to shine the light. That’s what WikiLeaks showed how to do for the network public sphere.”

A defense lawyer, David Coombs, called Mr. Benkler as an expert witness in an effort to undercut charges that Private Manning’s confessed leaking was not merely illegal but called for more severe charges like “wanton” misconduct and “aiding the enemy,” the latter of which could result in a life sentence.

After Mr. Benkler completed his testimony, Mr. Coombs told the judge, Col. Denise Lind, that the defense was resting after three days. The prosecution, by contrast, took five weeks to present its case.

Colonel Lind asked Private Manning — who during the pretrial phase had read a lengthy statement confessing to most of the leaking with which he had been charged and explaining his motivations — to verify that he had chosen not to testify in his defense.

“That’s correct, Your Honor,” he replied.

It is not clear whether the defense will seek to put on a rebuttal case before closing arguments. The trial will resume next week.

Mr. Benkler’s testimony briefly shifted the focus back to WikiLeaks, which in 2010 enjoyed fame and endured criticism over the leaks of hundreds of thousands of secret United States military and diplomatic files. The trial has served to emphasize that Private Manning was the real catalyst for the leaks.

A prosecutor, Capt. Joe Morrow, asked Mr. Benkler whether he agreed that the release of documents in bulk was not journalism. Mr. Benkler disagreed, however. Sometimes, he said, a database holds important information even though no single document is newsworthy by itself.

As an example, he cited an analysis by the group Iraq Body Count of the logs of Iraq war incidents, which Private Manning leaked, that suggested there had been far higher civilian casualties than officials had estimated.

Mr. Benkler has written opinion articles criticizing the severe charges leveled against Private Manning as a threat to investigative journalism.

Tracing the history of WikiLeaks’ activities, Mr. Benkler said it had initially encountered skepticism over the authenticity of the documents it published. Then, he said, after it had published dozens of documents without having to retract any, it was increasingly accepted as a legitimate journalistic player. The third phase, he said, came after it began publishing the files Private Manning provided.

American government officials and lawmakers began denouncing the organization. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., for example, called its leader, Julian Assange, a “high-tech terrorist,” and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said it might have “blood on its hands,” although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates later conceded that some of the reaction had been “overwrought.”

But such claims were amplified, Mr. Benkler noted, by commentators on Fox News and in the Weekly Standard, among other outlets, who sharply criticized WikiLeaks. Its journalistic reputation was also undercut by two prominent articles published by The New York Times — an opinion column by Thomas L. Friedman and a lengthy first-person magazine article by Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor at the time — portraying the group as anarchists and “a secretive cadre of antisecrecy vigilantes.”

At the same time, Mr. Benkler said, many other news organizations were inaccurately reporting that WikiLeaks had put online 250,000 cables, even though at that point it had published only 272 cables that were chosen and simultaneously published by the traditional news organizations that had obtained advance access to them. WikiLeaks did ultimately release all the cables, though it blamed an editor at The Guardian for inadvertently revealing a password that made their release inevitable.

But despite the criticism WikiLeaks has endured, Mr. Benkler said the model it had developed was likely to endure.

“WikiLeaks may fail in the future because of all these events, but the model of some form of decentralized leaking, that is secure technologically and allows for collaboration among different media in different countries, that’s going to survive, and somebody else will build it,” he said. “But WikiLeaks played that critical role of that particular critical component of what muckraking and investigative journalism has always done.”

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A Casualty on the Battlefield of Amazon’s Partisan Book Reviews

In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favorable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale.

“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”

In “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” Randall Sullivan writes that Jackson’s overuse of plastic surgery reduced his nose to little more than a pair of nostrils and that he died a virgin despite being married twice. These points in particular seem to infuriate the fans.

Outside Amazon, the book had a mixed reception; in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “thoroughly dispensable.” So it is difficult to pinpoint how effective the campaign was. Still, the book has been a resounding failure in the marketplace.

The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate. “Sullivan does everything he can to dehumanize, dismantle and destroy, against all objective fact,” a spokesman for the group said.

But the book’s publisher, Grove Press, said the Amazon review system was being abused in an organized campaign. “We’re very reluctant to interfere with the free flow of discourse, but there should be transparency about people’s motivations,” said Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic, Grove’s parent company.

Amazon said the fans’ reviews had not violated its guidelines but declined further comment.

The retailer, like other sites that depend on customer reviews, has been faced with the problem of so-called sock puppets, those people secretly commissioned by an author to produce favorable notices. In recent months, Amazon has made efforts to remove reviews by those it deemed too close to the author, especially relatives.

The issue of attack reviews, though, has received little attention. The historian Orlando Figes was revealed in 2010 to be using Amazon to anonymously vilify his rivals and secretly praise himself. The crime writer R. J. Ellory was exposed for doing the same thing last fall.

Attack reviews are hard to police. It is difficult, if not impossible, to detect the difference between an authentic critical review and an author malevolently trying to bring down a colleague, or organized assaults by fans. Amazon’s extensive rules on reviewing offer little guidance on what is permissible in negative reviews and what is not.

With “Untouchable,” Grove had hopes for a modest best seller. The book was excerpted in Vanity Fair, and Mr. Sullivan, a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone who lives in Portland, Ore., promoted it on “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.” Amazon selected it as one of the best books of November, encouraging readers to “check out this train wreck of a life.” The retailer also selected it as one of the 100 best e-books of the year.

None of that helped when Mr. Sullivan tried to complain, saying reviews of his book were factually false yet being voted up by the fans so that they dominated the page for “Untouchable.” The bookseller replied with boilerplate. “Rest assured, we’ll read each of the reviews and remove any that violate our guidelines,” adding, “We’ve appreciated your business and hope to have the opportunity to serve you again in the future.”

In an interview, Mr. Sullivan asked: “Should people be allowed to make flagrantly false comments about the content of a book or its author? This is suppression of free speech in the name of free speech.”

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