Military Service, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

History Repeats

A pilgrimage back to the battlefields of Gettysburg

By Gretchen A. Peck

Growing up in a then-small town in mid-state Maryland, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania always beckoned from the north. As 5th-graders, we’d travel to Camp Round Top for a standard-curriculum introduction to cabin life and campfire songs. Those who could afford it trekked up to places like Seven Springs for high-school ski trips. Towns like York and Reading appealed to our parents for stuff like farm-fresh canned goods and outlet shopping. It was rare to venture far enough east or west to get a taste of the big cities in Pennsylvania. I didn’t see Pittsburgh until I was well into my 40s, and Philadelphia eluded me until I was in college and in control of my own journeys. 

Though it felt like an epic adventure back then—through the wide-eyed but impatient eyes of a child — Gettysburg was an easy day-trip destination for parents and teachers who wanted to leverage some pretty remarkable local history. As a kid, I went there twice. Both times are etched in my memory still — one a fond trip; the other, a not-so-fond trip involving a banana-seated bicycle and a flashy Mercedes-Benz. 

The fonder of those two trips was with my main pal, my great-grandmother, Ruth. She was always rather independent and still felt comfortable behind the wheel of one those iron-horse American-made cars and station wagons she used to drive. I can’t be certain if she pitched the idea of a day trip to Gettysburg because she was intrigued by the history herself, or if she was just looking for a way to keep a precocious kid occupied for a span of time, but northward we went to the battlefields of Gettysburg. 

Gettysburg

I knew about Gettysburg’s history, probably because I’d read about it independently. I was a voracious, above-grade reader with an affinity for history and historic fiction. I don’t know what I expected of the battlefields there, which I knew to have claimed the lives of thousands of men, but as we drove Gettysburg’s rolling hills and past its stacked stone walls, I found them to be just pretty countryside, but otherwise unremarkable. It was hard to imagine them littered with the bodies of dead and dying soldiers. Then again, it was hard to imagine fellow countrymen turning on one another at all. It didn’t sit well with me then, as a child, and doesn’t now.

At the museum commemorating the pivotal battle, there was an interactive display — what they refer to as a cyclorama — a painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux that offers a 360-degree depiction of the battleground’s horrors and the spoils of war. The artist shied not away from the gore, and viewing the battlefield like that helped me to imagine what those bucolic fields looked like in July 1863. I spun around, taking it all in, aghast at the blood and carnage. 

Cyclorama depicting the Battle of Gettysburg
Cyclorama (detail)

There was another artifact from the museum that I thought I remembered so vividly—an old wooden table used as a makeshift operating table. As a child, I stared in horror at the rough-blade saws they used for amputation with little to soothe the wounded soldiers. The table had what appeared to be a stain, and I gasped at the thought that no one had thought to wipe away the blood before putting it on display. 

Before we headed for home, my great-grandmother bought me a fold-out miniature depiction of the cyclorama, on glossy postcard stock. I unfolded it on my lap and studied it the whole way home. 

I was in my 40s when I went back to Gettysburg on a cold misty-mountain day, the end of a brief but cathartic pilgrimage back to where I began. Decidedly middle-aged by then, I had new perspective on childhood homes and places of significance around my hometown. I toured it with my parents, and we spoke of memories, avoiding the hardest ones. After the visit, I packed my truck and headed north toward home in Pennsylvania. I toyed with the idea of stopping in Gettysburg, but it was threatening to rain and I kept that in the back of my mind as an excuse not to make the pitstop. 

But something compelled me to retrace the steps my great-grandmother and I had walked together decades before. 

I thought of her as I bought my ticket, and wandered through the exhibits. She felt beside me as I ascended the long escalator to the theater-in-the-round where they cyclorama painting is on display. I could practically hear her laughter when I walked up to the display of the operating table to see that the “stain” I’d remembered was most likely just the natural grain of the wood and some wear and tear — the blood I’d conjured were just a child’s imagination run amok. 

Kitchen table/Operating table

I brushed by families and stood by myself reading the plaques and watching the video clips throughout the exhibit. I thought about the toxicity of politics, how it inherently divides up the nation into neat little categories, largely based on where and to whom we’re born. I thought of the barbarism of the war, the hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye combat, an intimate, personal war waged among neighbors and families and fellow countrymen. 

What would the weapons of Civil War be today?

It seemed to me then, even as a child, a wholly absurd notion. I felt men were to blame and women had to suffer their consequences. Now that members of Congress like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) openly flirt with the idea of civil war, like it’s the stuff of romantic nostalgia, I can no longer blame the barbarism on men alone. I do imagine that the civil war the Congresswoman pines for will not be so “fairly” fought, with men in uniforms on rural battlefields, but instead through cowardly acts of terror.

By the time I found my middle-aged self in Gettysburg back on that misty day, the nation’s politics had once again turned toxic, like a sepsis from a wound that never really healed. It’s exponentially worse now — in 2022, as we sit — so much more vitriolic, hateful, and steeped in a scourge of misinformation. 

Before I left Gettysburg in my wake for that third time in my life, I stopped in the gift shop — now, a gift shop on steroids — and bought water for the ride home, a soldier bag for my husband (he’d hate it if I called it a murse, which it is), and a mug depicting the Gettysburg address for me. Just outside the gift shop sat a table where visitors could “Send a Message to the Troops” via postcard. I filled one out, and hoped it found someone out in some far-off “battlefield” and makes her or him feel thought-of and important.

I stopped to snap a selfie with a bronze statue of President Abraham Lincoln before getting on the road, just long enough to hear a strange conversation unfold between a father and son coming up the path to see the museum. “Lincoln,” the child exclaimed when he saw the statue where I was taking my selfie. “Take a picture of me, Daddy,” the little boy pleaded. There was an awkward pause before the father said, “Nah. Nah. Not now. Besides, he was on the other side.”

I thought of my great-grandmother again in that moment, by all accounts a church-going, southern, conservative Republican woman to her core. There was never any question how she came down on such matters. Slavery was immoral, a sin, and a war fought on slavery’s behalf — pitting neighbor against neighbor, countryman against countryman, brother versus brother — was, too. This was not up for debate.

She’d brought me to that hallowed battlefield to instill that in me. 

“War is cruelty.”

It felt tragic, almost surreal, to see a child brought to that solemn place and taught otherwise — its lessons not just missed but mistaken, misrepresented, warped.  Once again it feels surreal to see members of Congress masticating the possibility of bloodshed, or to read articles by pundits pondering whether Civil War in the United States is inevitable or has already begun. 

Perish the thought. 

News & Publishing

Under New Management

With new local owners, former Gannett-owned newspapers benefit from reinvestment

By Gretchen A. Peck

Gannett remains at the top of the leaderboard for newspaper ownership. It publishes over 1,000 weekly titles and more than 100 dailies, amassed over the years through independent acquisitions and headlining mergers. But the company turned heads in the newspaper world when it recently began selling off some of those newspapers, mostly small-market and community titles that local owners were eager to buy.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine.

News & Publishing

What’s Left Behind

The shadow of hedge fund and corporate ownership leaves newsrooms in fear they’ll be picked clean

By Gretchen A. Peck

This summer, Alden Global Capital acquired Tribune Publishing and its titles, from small community newspapers to major metro titles like its flagship, The Chicago Tribune, and The Baltimore Sun. It wasn’t the first newspaper acquisition for this hedge fund firm, nor is it the only firm of its kind eyeing the nation’s newspapers. But this acquisition was profound, making Alden Global Capital the owner, in effect, of more than 200 newspapers across the land. It was a deal rife with drama, as the Tribune newsrooms publicly pleaded for some other savior. In the end, no eccentric billionaire philanthropist descended on the scene to save them. Instead, the newsrooms steeled themselves for the future.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Access Journalism: The Impact on Trust in News

Relationships with sources are more scrutinized and more complicated than ever

By Gretchen A. Peck

Access journalism. Follow threads about the press or conversations among journalists and it’s bound to come up in discussion. Fundamentally, access journalism occurs when reporters value landing a source more than the information gleaned from that source.

But what do readers, viewers, or other members of the public mean when they use the term as criticism? Is it simply expedient and pithy, just a new way to disparage the press?

More importantly, what does the practice or appearance of access journalism mean to the trust audiences and the public place in their news sources? And how should we prepare new journalists coming into the field for navigating the access minefield?

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine:
https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/access-denied-or-granted,199088

News & Publishing

The Podcast Revolution

By Gretchen A. Peck

Audio is a platform unlike any other, in that it closes the distance—physically and cognitively—between the listener and host and guests. In conversations with people who podcast, you’ll hear the word “intimate” used a lot to describe the relationship between listener and the voices emanating from their earbuds. It’s as if there’s no one else in the equation, as if you’re being told a story just for you.

For news organizations increasingly reliant on audience more than advertising, audio is proving to be a platform that makes those connections, builds trust and familiarity, and solidifies those relationships.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-podcast-revolution,196969

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Newspapers Emerging from the Pandemic

In this month’s Editor & Publisher magazine, check out the cover story. I spoke with news organizations about the past pandemic-challenged year and how they’ve managed through the tumult.

Read on at EditorandPublisher.com:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/newspapers-emerging-from-the-pandemic,189882

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

HD Media Takes on the Tech Giants

With a federal antitrust suit against Google and Facebook, a single newspaper publisher seeks to level the playing field

By Gretchen A. Peck

Tech giants Google and Facebook aren’t strangers to antitrust litigation and Congressional scrutiny, but in a first-of-its-kind case, the two companies have been named as defendants in a federal antitrust lawsuit filed by a newspaper publisher.

The plaintiff, HD Media Co., LLC, is the West Virginia-based publisher of seven titles, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch, a historically significant newspaper that dates back to 1871.

On Jan. 29, the publisher filed its lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia. To small community and regional newspaper publishers across the nation, the action may seem like David squaring off against a two-headed Goliath.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

What’s “Section 230,” and why should you care?

Yesterday, the Giants of Social Media stomped their feet down on the President of the United States, who’d abused their platforms all along, leveraging them to spread disinformation, launch attacks, paint targets, fire people, lament TV ratings, race bait, and – his most egregious offenses – to discredit the 2020 election, grift people of their hard-earned cash with promises of an overturn, inciting the most gullible among them to disrupt governance, trash and pillage the U.S. Capitol, plant bombs in the nation’s capital, murder a Capitol Police officer, and attempt to install Donald J. Trump as a second-term President via violent insurrection against their own country.

Whew.

Indeed, social media had tolerated much from the digitally prolific President, but as conversations of an armed terrorist attack on the nation’s capital began to simmer, they’d had enough. 

Immediately came the decries of a “First Amendment infringement” (it’s not), and Trump’s most loyal lawmaker friends calling for a repeal of “Section 230” – a pet peeve for the outgoing Commander in Chief.

What is Section 230?

“Section 230” – more formally known as Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 at 47 U.S.C. § 230, and colloquially as “the 26 words that created the Internet” – was born out of two 1990s lawsuits against ISPs and challenged in the Courts several times since. Each time, it was upheld. 

It is fair to say that Section 230 is perhaps the single most important legislation applicable to social media. It is what enabled platforms like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and others to grow, flourish, and become a huge, integral part of the American economy and culture.

President Trump’s interest in Section 230 appears to coincide with Twitter’s first fact-checking of the President’s potentially harmful tweets, back in the spring of 2020. At the time, he was undermining his own taskforce with COVID-19 disinformation, and already sowing the seeds of election chaos. 

Twitter justified the tags it placed on the President’s tweets by suggesting that virus disinformation could kill people – and it has – and that his election discrediting jeopardized democracy itself. The rest of the President’s political gamesmanship was all fair game, Twitter and Facebook concluded. 

From then on, the President became hyper-focused on a Section 230 repeal. He would like to be able to sue the tech companies for denying him a platform and megaphone. He wants to criminalize fact-checking. He has been so intent on this goal, that he was willing to tank two major pieces of legislation – the NDAA and a second sweeping COVID relief Bill – if he couldn’t get his way on Section 230. 

For Democrats, this repeal is a non-negotiable dealbreaker, perhaps because they have a better grasp of what’s at stake. 

In Congress, some of President Trump’s most lock-step Republicans now champion the repeal in his stead. 

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) sponsored a 2020 bill, known as H.R. 8896 – the AOC Act, which conveniently shares the acronym with a certain Congresswoman perpetually under the skins of her Republican colleagues and its actual title, “the Abandoning Online Censorship Act.” Gohmert was able to get seven co-sponsors to sign on, all Republicans.

It was “dead in the [swamp] water.”

In 2021, and in the wake of the de-platforming of an American President who would not follow the rules, Republicans will make this case: When the platforms began to fact-check, censor, and now ban content from the President and others, they have ceased to be a platform and are instead a publisher, with an editorial due diligence and subjective control over what users see or don’t see. 

The tech platforms will argue: As private companies, with clear terms of service (that users agree to when they open their accounts and create their avatars), they should be able to enforce those rules and codes of conduct, which clearly state that users are prohibited from sharing content that will harm or threaten people (other users or otherwise). 

It’s worth mentioning that the federal government already has some control over platforms and their users. For example, it is criminal act to distribute certain types of content across the Internet or any platform. Section 230 does not give social media platforms blanket immunity from all forms of civil or criminal prosecutions. 

If Section 230 goes away, what happens?

Without Section 230, the platforms, like publishers, would be subjected to defamation and libel laws. The distinction, however, is that publishers own their content. Publishers create, edit, verify and challenge, run it by lawyers, decide what and what not to publish, and then take whatever fallout there is from those choices; they wholly own the content they share. 

Conversely, platforms are just that – a technological foundation for users to share the content they and others produce. Without Section 230 shields, platforms could then be held liable for content they do not create and merely host. 

President Trump and his Congressional allies vow this repeal will force the tech companies to take an apolitical hands-off approach to users; that it will force them to enable more free expression; and force the platforms to be tolerant of a broader spectrum of ideas and alt-facts. 

They feel social media has been unfair to conservative voices and ideas. A simple glance at what trends on Facebook defies this assertion. On any given day, the top 10 trending posts on Facebook are often from Right-leaning media and personalities, or topics deemed of import to conservative-minded users.

I know you’re surprised that politicians would sell you poppycock, right?

Instead, a repeal would likely have a chilling, constricting effect on users most of all. 

Now, liable for content they do not create, platforms will be forced to more protective and less likely to tolerate content that could be controversial, debatable or have merit in a Court of law. 

Users would have less opportunity for free expression, not more

It’s a bottomless pit of liability for the social media platforms, which could be named as a Party in every single lawsuit in which a social media comment somehow plays a role – big-dollar cases to petty ones. 

The only real winners will be lawyers. 

Ultimately, it would hobble the tech companies, just as one notoriously vindictive President hopes. The tech market would be destabilized, fractured. Users would find themselves with fewer options and tighter restrictions on what they can post and share. Online communities will be more insular and more echo-chamber like. 

Businesses – especially small businesses that rely heavily on the mostly free marketing perks of platforms like Twitter and Facebook – would be hobbled, too. It doesn’t seem the Republicans like Lindsay Graham and Louie Gohmert have really thought this through. 

None of this is to say that social media execs don’t have plenty of atoning to do. There is no shortage of Silicon Valley sin, but repealing Section 230 will not address those in a surgical, effective way. 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

A Tale of Two Patriots

I, like so many other Americans, am still trying to process the assault on our Nation’s Capitol. I am grateful to the many journalists and photojournalists who were the People’s eyes and ears, our witnesses and documentarians to this tragic day in American history. 

Thanks to their continued reporting, we’re all able to assess the physical aftermath. The emotional toll, the structural damage to our democracy may take some time to discern and measure.

It was during my digital assessment of the damage that I came upon a tweet from William Turton, a Bloomberg reporter who captured some video as he strolled through a fairly opulent and pricey DC hotel, documenting scores of guests fresh off their storm-the-Capitol tour of Washington, DC. 

In the video, they sit casually in groups, chatting and enjoying refreshments, as if they haven’t a care in the world.  

Turton, who was also a hotel guest, reported that some of these people followed him, harassed him, and demanded that he erase this footage. The hotel staff had to intervene to protect him.   

I knew that hotel, because it was just a couple of years ago when I stayed there with four of my favorite fellas. My husband and I, my brother-in-law, my father-in-law and uncle-in-law all traveled by Amtrak to DC, to attend the beautifully solemn “Evening Parade.” 

Every American should make the trip to Washington, DC and attend this seasonal, weekly Friday night event, held on the grounds of the oldest Marine Corps barracks in the United States. 

In my case, I had the honor of accompanying two unimpeachable patriots to this particular Friday-night parade: My father-in-law, a WWII Marine Corps vet who served in the South Pacific, and my uncle-in-law, who spent WWII at sea with the U.S. Navy – the two surviving brothers out of the five Peck “boys,” who all enlisted and served their Nation with honor. 

Aboard Amtrak, they passed the time playing cards and talking about the last time they’d been to Washington, DC – a seniors’ bus trip that included a stop at the WWII Memorial. Neither had been on a train in years, and they relished the experience – even more so when we arrived at Washington, DC’s famous Union Station and got “first-class golf-cart transportation” from the train to the taxi line outside. 

We checked in to our hotel and everyone freshened up before we had to dash off to the Marine Corps event. Arriving at the historic barracks, we saw a long line of people waiting to get in. The USMC estimates that each Evening Parade brings out thousands of spectators. My husband and I looked at each other, silently conveying our worry that his father and uncle – both in their 90s by then – would have to navigate the line and be on their feet for an untold amount of time.

But no sooner had we exited the cab and taken our spot at the back of the line when a fine-looking Marine in full dress blues approached us. My father-in-law was wearing a crisp new USMC Veteran cap we’d bought him at an army-navy store. It only took that sighting of that hat and perhaps the mileage on our men to grab his attention. “Would you do me the honor of being my guest at the Officers’ Club,” he said to my father-in-law, who accepted the invitation with a curious spirit and a little spring in his step. 

The handsome Marine led us across the barracks lawns and into a nondescript building, up an impossibly steep set of stairs to the second-story lounge. Soldiers of various officer ranks and attire mingled and imbibed. This, too, seemed like a Friday-night ritual. 

We were led to a comfy sectional, and other Marines swooped in to ask what we were drinking. My father-in-law and uncle order glasses of red wine. Neither was ever much of a drinker. Marines came over and introduced themselves and marveled at our Marine’s and Sailor’s ages and at what they must’ve seen and endured during their time at War. 

It became obvious to us that one of the Marines in the room was running the show, getting invited guests stoked for the parade to come, and boosting the morale for the in-service men and women present. He came over and introduced himself to our family and asked “the boys” about where and when they served. They exchanged some military quips and inside soldier jokes, and our host turned to the room and called his soldiers to attention, formally introducing their military brothers in the house. 

The room erupted in applause and ooh-rahs. 

The parade was about to start, so we were told to head on down to the parade grounds and get a good seat. Before we left, one of the Marines came up and pulled me aside and pleaded with me to bring “the boys” back to the Club after the parade. He had something special planned for them, he said, and swore me to secrecy. 

It was a perfect late-summer night. It was still hot, but the bugs were gone. The sky was clear, moving from a silky dusk-blue to midnight black, a heavenly made scrim for the performance. 

For nearly two hours, we were captivated by the drill demonstrations, historic anecdotes, marching, music, drum lines and trumpets. At the conclusion, we all headed back to the Club, none of us really knowing what to expect. 

The Marines who’d spoken with my father-in-law and uncle had listened so astutely to the tales they told of their family, their upbringing, their wartime. They recounted these stories to the quieted crowd of lively Marines and officers from other branches of the service, who applauded and cheered and brought tears to my eyes. 

It was recognition hard-fought and long overdue. The sense of camaraderie, brotherhood, and pride was palpable. 

While we’d been enjoying the parade, the Officers had printed up certificates and bound them in red silk, acknowledging each of the Peck brothers for their service to the nation. They called my father-in-law up to the front of the room, and he shuffled his way there to accept it. He was asked if he’d like to say a few words. He didn’t hesitate. He’d rehearsed this story on us a thousand times already. 

“I told my father that I was thinking about enlisting in the Marine Corps,” he began. “My father said, ‘Why the Marine Corps?’” My father-in-law shrugged for effect.

The crowd chuckled, and he continued. “So, my father said to me, ‘Go down the street and see our neighbor. He was a Marine. Ask him what it’s like before you enlist.’ So I did, and he gave me this advice: ‘Keep your eyes open, your mouth closed, and never volunteer for anything.’” 

I never entirely appreciated that last part about volunteering, but all those Marines in the room got the drift, and they burst out into laughter and cheers. I was so happy for my father-in-law. He always loved an audience for his stories. 

Next up, our uncle made his way to the front to accept his award. He was the only Navy man in the room. He was given his certificate, saluted, and invited to say a few words to the crowd. You could see his chest rise and his back straighten as he thought of what to say. 

In his best loud and authoritative voice, he gave them a good old-fashioned Navy-vs-Marine ribbing: “The Marines wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the Navy,” he declared. 

And they adored him for it. The room erupted in cheers and hollers and applause. 

We were so proud of “our boys,” and so very glad we’d made the trip – no easy feat for 90-year-old bodies. 

It was months after the trip, and the two brothers were still talking about it. They marveled at the parade, their time in the Officers Club. They displayed their certificates in a curio cabinet, next to the medals and dog tags of their other brothers.

They spoke of the pleasures of train travel and often repeated how magnificent the hotel and their hotel room had been.  

Today, I watched the video footage of that hotel’s guests, who’d come to DC to support a President who doesn’t even respect them enough to tell them the truth, who took part, either passively or actively, in storming the Capitol, trespassing, vandalism, a violent insurrection. They’re just sitting there, sprawled around the lobby, chatting, having refreshments, rewarding themselves, having been convinced that their actions are somehow patriotic. 

And I think of those five Peck brothers, their family’s sacrifice. I think of the moments each of them enlisted, that dilemma they each faced, that choice they made. I think of the men they became and the values they held so dear. I think of how proud my father-in-law was to be an American and of his time as a United States Marine, and later, in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he re-enlisted to learn to fly planes. I think of the men they became and how they lived their lives after the service – with humility, perspective, gratitude, frugality, and unwavering honor.

I think of the two Peck brothers walking into that fancy hotel lobby for the first time, looking up and marveling at its architecture, in awe of the experience, grateful to be alive to see it.

And I look at those hotel guests, and I want to tell them: Real, true patriots walked these halls. 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Billie’s Reality

Reality Winner’s mother and stalwart advocate, Billie Winner-Davis, talks about her daughter’s ongoing imprisonment, the Espionage Act, a Presidential tweet, and the disturbing lack of Press attention

By Gretchen A. Peck

Billie Winner-Davis’ Twitter followers know her to be a near-tireless digital advocate for her daughter, Reality. With only hashtags – #FreeRealityWinner, #CompassionateRelease4Reality, #ProtectWhistleblowers – in her quiver, she’s on a quest to see that her daughter is released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Medical Center in Carswell, Texas – and that Reality’s incarceration hasn’t been in vain.

With a memorable name like Reality Winner, you’d think it would be “household,” part of the pop vernacular. Yet, many Americans still don’t know her name, nor the action she took – she contends, on their behalf.

Reality Winner, USAF veteran

At 18, Winner enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF), and her natural aptitude for languages carved her path the military. She served as a cryptologic linguist, a marketable skill beyond her six years of service. 

Winner was in her mid-twenties and fresh out of the service when National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Pluribus International hired her to be a translator. It was during the course of her work there that she obtained a classified document that outlined Russia’s sustained campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. election that pitted Hillary Clinton against Donald J. Trump for the Presidency. 

The classified report detailed Russian hackers’ objective to compromise local election and voter registration systems across the country. Winner copied the report, hiding it in her pantyhose to get it off site, she later told investigators. She sent the document to Glenn Greenwald’s former outlet, The Intercept. 

Winner was arrested in June 2017, two days before The Intercept published its story.

Now, three years and another Presidential election later, the information Winner disclosed seems somehow quaint. Volumes have been written on Russia’s meddling, including the thick tome Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team produced, but few read. 

The United States of America charged Winner under the Espionage Act, law intended to prosecute the nation’s most insidious traitors. Prosecuting counsel portrayed Winner as an existential threat to the nation, suggesting she’d caused “grave damage” and compromised national security. 

For any objective observer, it’s hard to quantify those damages; certainly, the Federal Government was embarrassed by the disclosure – caught on its heels, slow to mount a defense against Russian aggression, and intent on keeping that failure hidden from the American people. 

In June 2018 – after a year in prison – Winner pleaded guilty to a single felony count of unauthorized transmission of classified information. She was sentenced to five years and three months and has been incarcerated since.

Billie Winner-Davis, with her daughter, Reality Winner

Reality’s mother hasn’t seen her daughter, in person, since February 2020. On March 13th, the Federal facility halted all in-person visitation to mitigate the COVID-19 virus. 

“She calls when she can. It’s a little hard with my work schedule, but she tries before I go to work. She also has to fight for the phone, because she’s in a large unit, and there are only so many phones. That means standing in line and waiting,” Winner-Davis said. Some weekends, she has the good fortune to connect with Reality through video chat. “It’s good to lay eyes on her, to know she’s okay.”

Despite the prison’s attempts to keep the virus at bay, Winner tested positive in July. She reported to her mother that she had telltale symptoms – body aches, severe headache and muscle cramps. Several months later, her mother was comforted to know that she was doing well and seemingly “over it.” 

Winner is scheduled for release on November 24, 2021. In May 2021, she’ll be eligible for a supervised early-release program. Naturally, Winner’s legal team sought clemency for their client, a pardon that can only come from one person in all of the land – the President of the United States. 

“It could be this President. It could be the next President,” Winner-Davis said. “She really doesn’t have very high hopes of getting out. She feels like she’s going to be there until her release date.”

President Trump appeared to take a passing interest in Winner’s conviction when he tweeted about her on August 24, 2018: 

“I always look back at the tweet, and I use it out there on Twitter, to remind [President Trump] that it’s still very unfair. It was really cool to see that tweet, and it was good, because during her pre-trial phase, her attorneys told us not to use the word ‘unfair,’ because it might upset the Courts; and so, for Trump to use that word was amazing for us. This process has been unfair from the beginning. 

“But when you look at the tweet, you see that his intent was to get back at Jeff Sessions, who he was angry with at the time. And he was trying to say something disparaging about Hillary Clinton. He was using Reality to get at them,” she said.

As Reality’s chief champion, her mother spends untold afterwork hours writing letters, emails, and making calls to the White House and members of Congress. At best, she receives boilerplate letters in response. Worse yet, she says, is the silence. 

“That’s one of the things that has been difficult for me — feeling like Reality doesn’t have support, even from my officials here in Texas,” she said. “I write to them, and I get form letters back saying that they don’t have the authority to intervene. I’m not asking them to intervene. I’m asking them to support her. When we were going to Washington, DC for the second-year anniversary of her arrest, I wrote to a number of Senators, asking if I could have a meeting with them while I was there – and to Nancy Pelosi, as well — but I never heard from anyone.” 

She is heartened, however, by the number of people who have expressed support and empathy for her daughter, including some of those famous whistleblowers – Thomas A. Drake, Lisa Ling, Edward Snowden, and others.

Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen reached out with interest in advocating for Winner’s compassionate early release – a privilege he was afforded while serving time for his own 2018 conviction. 

Hollywood came calling, too. Winner’s mother said that a documentary is planned for early 2021. There’s also a greenlit feature film in the works.

Reality Winner appealed for compassionate release on November 16, 2020 hearing. Chief U.S. District Judge Randal Hall said that Winner had not provided the prison warden 30 days to consider a compassionate release appeal, and that her attorneys failed to present a compelling case. 

Beyond a handful of legal publishers, few news organizations covered the hearing. 

“The media just isn’t there,” Winner-Davis said. 

When Reality and her mother have the opportunity to speak, they talk about lots of things – about her daughter’s health, her perspective on prison and the law, and what the future might hold. Winner is working on a degree in sociology. She’s become a certified instructor in yoga and spin-cycling. 

Her mother expects that she’ll leverage this experience and become an advocate for criminal justice and social justice reform. She’s expressed interest in working with at-risk youths. 

What the pair haven’t spoken about is the former government contractor’s decision to disclose the information – the risk-benefit analysis she considered before she sent the classified report to The Intercept.

 “She and I have never been able to have a real conversation about this. All of our conversations are monitored,” Winner-Davis said. “There have been times when she’s mentioned that she hopes that what she did paid off in some way, you know – that it made a difference, that it made some sort of a difference.”

Winner-Davis expressed frustration that the very information Reality disclosed is still being used as political fodder, and that its veracity is being undermined by members of the United States Congress. 

“We seem to have come full circle,” she said, exasperated. “Now, they’re trying to disprove it again, trying to say that there was something malicious about the investigation itself. And I sit here, and I want to scream, ‘But the Russians did it!’ It warranted an investigation, but now they’re trying to say that the investigation itself was wrong.” 

In the meantime, her daughter serves time. 

“The only thing I’ve been fighting for this whole time is to keep her name out there, and for people to learn who she is. She really is a remarkable young woman. Her service in the Air Force, her volunteerism? You’re not going to find someone that young who has given so much. I just want people to see her for who she is,” Winner-Davis said.

“I also want people to recognize that she didn’t do any harm to her country, and to press our nation into reforming the Espionage Act. It should only be used for people who actually damage us, who trade secrets, sell secrets, and work against our country. It should not be used on people like Reality, like Edward Snowden, like Chelsea Manning. There has got to be a line where we say, ‘No, this doesn’t fit.’ Reality did not conspire against the United States of America.”