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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

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Woody Guthrie’s ‘Christmas Massacre’—100 Years Later, With Echoes Today

It was captured in brilliant and harrowing fashion by Woody Guthrie in his classic “1913 Massacre” (see below), but few may know the story of the actual tragedy, which took place on Christmas Eve of that year, at a party for striking miners and their families in Calumet, Michigan. Seventy-three died, including fifty-nine children.

I don’t often link to Wikipedia but there’s a quite full rundown here. It’s been the subject of several academic studies and much debate in recent years, so I suggest you read the full account. Mother Bloor was reportedly present, but some even dispute that.

The basic outline: someone shouted “Fire!” at the crowded party in the Italian Hall. There was a rather inaccessible fire escape and the only real exit was down a narrow, steep flight of stairs, and dozens of kids got trampled to death. In Woody’s version, and many others, the “Fire!” shouter was sent by the copper mine bosses to create just such an event. Woody added the twist (not claimed by others) that “thugs” held the doors to the street shut from outside.

But despite official inquiries it’s stlll not known for certain (1) who shouted fire or (2) if the doors opened inward or outward. One academic even claims there was a small fire. Another writer, Steve Lehto in his book, says he has IDed the “Fire!’ shouter. In any case, a historic, tragic event in labor history.

There’s a new documentary about the incident, and at the site one of the creators links it to current anti-labor moves in Michigan. And an even newer doc aired on some PBS stations this month, titled Red Metal, with Steve Earle singing the Woody song.   And then there's the classic Steve Earle song, "Christmas Time in Washington," with its refrain, "Come back Woody Guthrie."

Here’s Woody (his melody borrowed by Dylan for “Song to Woody” on his first album).

Greg Mitchell is the author of more than a dozen books on politics, history, nuclear issues, capital punishment, WikiLeaks, Beethoven, Hiroshima and media.

Amazon, ‘The Washington Post’ and That $600 MIllion CIA Contract

Washington Post

The Friday and Thursday editions of The Washington Post. (AP Photo)

It’s been a rough couple days for The Washington Post. Word emerged that hackers invaded its internal system—for a few days, no less—all of its staffers had to change their passwords as the company tried to figure out how much data had been compromised.

Meanwhile, a petition campaign was launched related to news that Amazon, under the Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, recently secured a $600 million contract from the CIA. That’s at least twice what Bezos paid for the Post this year. Bezos recently disclosed that the company’s Web-services business is building a “private cloud” for the CIA to use for its data needs.

Critics charge that, at a minimum, the Post needs to disclose its CIA link whenever it reports on the agency. Over 15,000 have signed the petition this week hosted by RootsAction.

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In a statement released by the Institute for Public Accuracy, media writer/author Robert McChesney observes:

When the main shareholder in one of the very largest corporations in the world benefits from a massive contract with the CIA on the one hand, and that same billionaire owns the Washington Post on the other hand, there are serious problems. The Post is unquestionably the political paper of record in the United States, and how it covers governance sets the agenda for the balance of the news media. Citizens need to know about this conflict of interest in the columns of the Post itself.

If some official enemy of the United States had a comparable situation—say the owner of the dominant newspaper in Caracas was getting $600 million in secretive contracts from the Maduro government—the Post itself would lead the howling chorus impaling that newspaper and that government for making a mockery of a free press. It is time for the Post to take a dose of its own medicine.”

See article by Norman Solomon for a fuller accounting. He notes:

Bezos personally and publicly touts Amazon Web Services, and it’s evident that Amazon will be seeking more CIA contracts. Last month, Amazon issued a statement saying, “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA.”

Read next: Greg Mitchell’s post on CNN deleting a tweet claiming that Edward Snowden offered to spy on the US.

CNN Deletes Tweet Claiming New Edward Snowden Offer to ‘Spy’ on USA

A bus passes by a poster of Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA). (Reuters)

It’s been another wild twenty-four hours in the NSA/Snowden epic story-of-the-year.

Just hours after 60 Minutes aired its whitewash of the NSA—Valentine’s Day coming early for the snoopers—a federal district judge ruled that the massive (and purportedly harmless) data collection on Americans by the NSA is probably unconstitutional. This inspired another CNN debate last night about what Edward Snowden has wrought between Glenn Greenwald and Jeffrey Toobin, this time on Anderson Cooper’s show.

Toobin, the CNN legal analyst, still thinks Snowden should be arrested and should have gone through channels. Toobin contends that the judge’s ruling doesn’t “vindicate” Snowden, since it’s just one judge. And the whistleblower “should have gone through” Congress or something—it was “untenable” to leak to a Greenwald etc.  (Senator Ron Wyden backs the judge here.)

This morning, seemingly unrelated to that, Snowden posted an open letter to Brazilians, offering to help them expose wrongful spying within their borders. Some took this to be plea for asylum, which Greenwald denies. When CNN posted a story about the open letter it tweeted the link with this message: “Edward Snowden offers to spy on the US & help Brazil investigate NSA surveillance.”

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After criticism from others on Twitter—Greenwald wrote, “Dear CNN: even for you, this is so remarkably reckless and false that it’s shocking”—CNN quickly deleted the tweet and changed it to: “ leaker Edward Snowden is offering to help investigate U.S. surveillance of Brazilian citizens.”

Naturally, a screen grab of the original was uncovered and posted. So I guess I should close with: watch this space for updates.

Read next: Zoë Carpenter on Internet surveillance and the government.

The Sad Decline of ‘60 Minutes’ Continues With This Week’s NSA Whitewash

Screenshot of NSA epsiode

Screenshot from 60 Minutes' recent episode on the NSA.

The sad decline and fall of 60 Minutes has been a long time coming, but now it is nearly complete. Just in recent months: the horrid hit on Americans with disabilities, the Lara Logan affair, and now tonight’s whitewash of NSA (and bonus slam vs. Edward Snowden), hosted by longtime FBI/police/NSA propagandist John Miller.  Good night and good luck!

Here’s the complete transcript of tonight’s show. It’s got something to offend everyone. All that’s missing is an Amazon drone delivering a package of listening devices to an NSA agent in the field.  Here's a much-needed and valuable factcheck from Spencer Ackerman at The Guardian.   Good review at The Atlantic’s Wire highlights the NSA "minders" preventing any tough questions that might have been asked. Marcy Wheeler says John Miller should take that police job again and never work in journalism again.   Also don't miss Kevin Gosztola with more on Miller's "revolving door journalism."

And in this interview, Miller explains his motivation: "Because this is really the side of the story that has been mined only in the most superficial ways./ We've heard plenty [emphasis his] from critics" of NSA.

[UPDATE:   A Federal District judge ruled on Monday that the NSA's massive collection of phone records is likely unconstitutional.]

The response on Twitter and elsewhere on the Web to the 60 Minutes puff piece was swift and savagely negative. Glenn Greenwald tweets: “60 Minutes forgot to ask about how James Clapper & Keith Alexander routinely lied to Congress & FISA courts—just ran out of time.” And: “60 Minutes producer gushing about his NSA access: ‘It was like Star Trek…. My favorite room was the Black Chamber!’ ”   Later he called it and "access-for-uncritical-reverence NSA propaganda piece" that  "was a new low for US journalism."

From other key media observers. Dave Itzkoff of the NYT: “NSA Doing Great Job, NSA Says—60 Minutes.”   Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker: “Wow, the 60 Minutes piece about the NSA was just embarrassing. Kudos to the NSA communications staff. You guys should get a raise.”  Jeff Jarvis: “For shame, , for shame…. CBS just *bragged* that John Miller is ‘the ultimate insider.’ Yes, he just demonstrated that!”  

The great Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:  "Quick pivot on @60minutes from Snowden character-trashing to how NSA will save us all from cyber attacks...Oy, --still waiting for a tough question, follow-up for General Alexander..."   Will Bunch posted a photo of Edward R. Murrow with this comment:  "Next on -- a special report on a man who's actually spinning in his grave."

John McQuaid of Forbes:  "Would love to see a transcript of CBS-NSA negotiations over that 60 Minutes story. What journalistic prerogatives did CBS agree to give up?"   Carne Ross: “Hadn’t realized now does infomercials…. Where the hell is Lowell Bergman when u need him? Oh yes, he quit at the end of the movie.” Jay Rosen: “This ‘60 Minutes’ report on the NSA is… TV. That’s not a compliment.”

Andy Greenberg: “This 60 Minutes episode has been a pretty good infomercial for the NSA so far. Did anyone catch that 1-800 number so I can order?” Xeni Jardin: “Remember when 60 Minutes was where people looked for quality journalism?” The official WikiLeaks feed: “60 minutes and NSA pair up to strike back on leaks; character assassinate .”

Greg Mitchell has written more than a dozen books about famous political campaigns, WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, the media and Iraq,  nuclear cover-ups, Beethoven's Ninth, and more.

Read Next: Peter van Buren asks if Google and the NSA could actually make whistleblowers disappear. 


The AP Defends Publishing Scoop on Missing CIA Agent in Iran

The lobby of the CIA headquarters

(Reuters/Larry Downing)

UPDATE:   New York Times now reveals it has known about this since 2007 and did not publish.  Now with lengthy piece by my old friend Barry Meier.  Huff Post's Mike Calderone talks to Meier on the missing years.

Earlier:  Don't miss the scoop just posted by the AP on long-missing American in Iran who, it turns out, was working for the CIA.  And against all protocols, hired by a rogue element.

It's an incredibe story but because of its sensitive nature—the man, Robert Levinson, is still missing, it was a secret operation, and offiicials lied to us and Congress—the Associated Press debated about publishing it. As they related, “even after the White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson's CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged. ‘He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,’ the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson's disappearance.” Now that it has posted the piece, the AP carried a lengthy explanation.

Read the full story but, since I'm a media writer, here's the AP defending why they are publishing now even though it presents some risk to the CIA man, if still alive. The White House today criticized the AP move, saying it had “strongly urged” it to hold off (it did not admit Levinson was a CIA operative.) From the statement: “We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause of bringing him home. The investigation into Mr. Levinson's disappearance continues, and we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family.”

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Here's the full AP statement:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.


Read Next: Pratap Chatterjee shows how the CIA bungled the War on Terror.

Jon Stewart Mocks ‘The Handshake,’ ‘The Selfie’ and Media Coverage of Mandela Funeral

Jon Stewart

(Screen grab courtesty of Comedy Central.)

Last night Jon Stewart aptly hit the US media (and blogosphere) coverage of President Obama at the Nelson Mandela funeral this week. As he put it, “No act too petty for our media to completely blow out of proportion.”

There was the handshake with Castro (not even Fidel) and the selfie (was he flirting with the PM, making his wife mad?). And now we have the “hallucinating” guy who was not really signing.

Then Jon faked hanging himself in desperation. I guess he could have called it “Mourning in America.” The segment below. Also see The Guardian on the media and the selfie.

It essentially turned a memorial service for one of the greatest modern leaders into a soap opera. And like any good soap opera, it divided the female players into sexist archetypes: in this case Thorning-Schmidt played the blonde, ditzy seductress and foil to Michelle Obama, the jealous, shrewish wife.


‘Blackfish’: A Wail of a Film (to Save the Whales)

Orcas in a Seaworld show

Orcas pause during a Seaworld show. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Leon7. CC 3.0.)

It’s been another great year for hard-hitting or wonderfully creative documentary films, from Sarah Polley on her family to Jeremy Scahill on targeted killing abroad (and need I mention my own on Beethoven’s Ninth?).

Last night I watched another film on the just-announced shortlist of finalists for this year’s Academy Award for the genre: Blackfish.

As you may have heard, it takes a deep (so to speak) look at the practice, over the past four decades, of capturing orcas in the wild and hauling them to the Sea Worlds of the world. The film raises alarms not just about these magnificent creatures but the danger to trainers and performers at the water expos. We see shocking footage of numerous deaths or near-death experiences of humans leading to a current legal action that has, for now, curtailed the man-to-whale contact in the shows.

But at the heart of it, and I do mean heart, is the foul practice of capturing the orcas at sea and breaking up their families (among the tightest in creation). Who knew that, like Indian tribes of yore, each grouping of orcas has their own “language”? That they can live for 100 years? That the mothers and kids stay together their entire lives (yes, as often the case, the dads are around but not central). And so on.

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You may shake with anger and sadness on viewing this film, or at least give your cat or dog an extra hug.

Here’s the trailer:

Seymour Hersh Stirs Dispute After Casting Doubt on Syrian Chemical Weapons Intel

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh speaking in 2009. (Courtesy of Flickr user Giorgio Montersino, CC 2.0)

As most of you probably know by now, Seymour Hersh has written a major piece on the claims by the US (and others) that the pro-Assad forces used Sarin gas in Syria, and President Obama’s eventual response. This came after the article was turned down both by The Washington Post (which planned to publish it) and Hersh’s frequent home, The New Yorker.

Months ago I was among those strongly criticizing media coverage of what I saw as hyped, unproven (if not necessarily false) claims that nearly took us to war. After much protest from the left, and some on right (plus many MPs in the UK), Obama pulled back, somewhat mysteriously—and Assad then agreed to dismantle his arsenal. Soon Iran’s leaders were also responding favorably on nuclear inspections.

In Hersh’s view, those second thoughts by Obama were likely sparked not so much by antiwar protest, but the president realizing that he was being rolled with false or unproven intelligence by those those wanting us to bomb-bomb-bomb Syria. Hersh’s edgy investigative reporting is usually proven right, of course, but in recent years, one must admit, sometimes wrong. For myself, I’ve never claimed a belief that rebels, not the Assad forces, launched the attacks, but at a minimum the doubts about the whole tragedy—and the further deaths from our bombing and hardening of Assad and Iranian attitudes—should have precluded war.

Today, Hersh explained his findings and sourcing—and the turndowns from the Post and New Yorker—on Democracy Now! He admitted it was foolish to believe that The Washington Post would publish his piece. He stood by his reporting after Amy Goodman read the firm denials from a National Intelligence spokesman. See clips below. Hersh referred to himself as a “creepy troublemaker.”

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The White House rejects the Hersh claims. Several news outlets have questioned Hersh’s (largely anonymous) sourcing and claimed that he ignores much fresh evidence. A nicely-balanced critique here from Ryan Goodman.  The longest take I’ve seen is in Foreign Policy. Eliot Higgins concludes:

While Hersh rightly expresses concern about the way in which the U.S. government’s narrative of the Aug. 21 was built, significant information can be gathered from open sources about this conflict—information that he appears to be lacking. In the future, open-source information may become even more important for understanding hard-to-access conflict zones, and learning how to use it effectively should become a key skill for any investigative journalist.

Hersh later appeared on CNN with Jake Tapper.

Bob Dreyfuss explores the effects on Syrian diplomacy of the US-Iran accords.

David Simon, TV Series Creator, on How America Itself Has Become ‘a Horror Show’

David Simon

David Simon speaking at the Models for Change national conference in 2011. (Photo courtesy of David Kindler, CC 2.0)

David Simon, former newspaper reporter and creator/writer/showrunner of Homicide, The Corner, The Wire and Treme, is known for his often angry denunciations of modern-day captialist America and the staggering gap between the well-off and the struggling. Last month he appeared at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia, where he spoke at length on these themes.

It took a month, but on Sunday The Guardian published a highly edited version on its site—under the title, “There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show”—which drew wide attention. As far as I can see, no one posted the video of his entire talk, however, along with questions from a host and the audience. So here’s one excerpt from the edited piece and then the full video.

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Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have “some”, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, supports another potentially disastrous cut to food stamps, writes Greg Kaufmann.

Mandela, Gil Scott-Heron and ‘Johannesburg’

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, the late former South African president, helped inspire Gil Scott-Heron's 1975 hit “Johannesburg.” (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

When I was senior editor at Crawdaddy—for most of the 1970s—I convinced Gil Scott-Heron to become an occasional columnist. He was well-known, in certain circles, for his “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and for a later cult hit “The Bottle” and excellent album Winter in America, but he was hardly a commercial superstar. Crawdaddy never cared about that and was always eager to promote any kind of lefty musician. Gil’s antinuclear epic “We Almost Lost Detroit” remains relevant to this day (I linked to it here after the Fukushima disaster).

And who can forget “Whitey on the Moon”?

I only met Gil a couple of times, including once backstage at a Central Park concert where I picked up a column (it seemed the only way I’d ever get it). But we chatted on the phone a few times and corresponded. He was a bright and engaging guy, and about to go a little more mainstream with his semi-hit song “Johannesburg.” Before its release, he wrote about it for me at Crawdaddy. It was based on his mid-1970s trip there, with Nelson Mandela a long way from being freed, and gave us the lyrics before the single came out.

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“Hey brother have you heard the word—Johannesburg!” Brothers were “defying the man” and Gil hated “when the blood starts flowing” but he was “glad to see resistance growing.” And hey, weren’t some aspects of US ciites, such as Detroit, “like Johannesburg”? One of the great songs of the 1970s. R.I.P. Mandela—and Gil.

Douglas Foster eulogizes Nelson Mandela.

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