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’s appeal for compassionate release was denied at the November 16, 2020 hearing. Chief U.S. District Judge Randal Hall ruled 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.”

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Consider the source

The Hunter Biden laptop story was so full of holes it’s hard to imagine why the NY Post — a tabloid — made an editorial decision to pick it up. This NY Times column explores why other outlets didn’t buy into it, including another Murdoch-owned paper, the non-tabloid WSJ.

It’s interesting to look at this from a 40,000-foot level and to study how news perpetuates in an economically disparate way. If you get your news largely from free sources or social media — or if you only watch Fox News and listen to freely accessible radio pundits — you likely don’t know the problems with the story and the diligence media outlets must use to determine its veracity. But if you’re a bit more well off — enough to afford a relatively expensive subscription to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, for example — you get the bigger picture, the more complete story, the truer version of events, and access to information that has been put through a meat grinder of editorial challenges and adjudication.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Imprecise rhetoric pits Americans against Americans

One thing that could help heal our nation a little bit is if our Representatives — in Congress, in the White House, at State Houses, and even in Town Councils — would stop the generalizing rhetoric.

When they mean “Democrats/Republicans IN CONGRESS,” they should speak the full phrase, not just “Democrats [insert condemnation],” not just “Republicans [insert condemnation].”

The American people should not have to shoulder the burdens of their imprecision and what is often political gamesmanship.

The American people should not be perpetually “groomed” and programmed by their Representatives to have disdain for one another — and especially because the “adults” in American government can’t compromise and get things done because they’re too busy gaining and retaining power.

Book Publishing, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Printing and Imaging, Uncategorized

Everything I Know About Capitalism, I Learned In the 6th Grade

This headline is not true, and yet, it was in this pre-Middle School era of my life when I first began to fully “understand the value of a dollar.”

I find that’s a popular phrase passed down through generations, an invaluable life lesson or a rite of passage. For two sixth-grade classes in the 1970s, their introduction to commerce and capitalism began that week.

That was the year that the number of students had outgrown the school, and some lucky contractor got the local school system bid for providing pop-up classrooms made out of stitched-together double-wide trailers. Two sixth-grade classes shared the one we’d been sentenced to, with a sliding partition between the two groups, each with its own teacher.

The partition was an insufficient barrier that mostly rendered us distracted by what was happening with the kids on the other side. When they laughed, our heads swiveled. When we acted up, they’d go silent and giggle as they listened to our punishment being levied. One teacher would have to raise her voice to keep the attention of her class whenever the sounds of the other teacher seemed more interesting.

And vice versa, and so it went.

Imagine the delight in our little hearts when one day the partition was folded in on itself, the two classrooms of kids facing off at last. The once competitive teachers joined forces and announced that we were going to learn about “the value of money.” They went on to explain that for a period of one week, there would be no traditional classroom lessons and that our trailer would be transformed into a microcosmic town.

Each of us had a role to play in the town. They asked for a show of hands when assigning roles like bankers, retailers, landlords, food purveyors, even insurance carriers.

I was the only one who wanted to run the town’s newspaper.

The town also needed governance and law, and so a show of hands indicated which of my classmates aspired to political life – managing their day-to-day duties while also running for a handful of offices, including mayor and sheriff.

We spent a day or two planning and building the town. Creative cardboard cutouts became our storefronts. Logos were designed, and signs went up over our storefronts. My classmates got right to work. The banker “handprinted” money and distributed a precisely equal amount of cash to each of the town’s residents, so everyone had a level playing field – a comparatively endearing socialist start to what would end in survival-of-the-fittest capitalistic carnage.

The most popular business, by far, was the town baker, who sold decadent treats to a classroom of kids given the freedom to make their own nutritional and expenditure decisions.

We didn’t speak of food allergies back then.

I got right to work wearing all the hats at the newspaper – a lot like things are today.

I reported and designed the layout. I “printed” the paper on the front office’s mimeograph. Printing is a big cost for actual newspapers, but I’d managed to get the paper and “press” for free. This would be seen as an ethical breach for actual newspapers.

I had to hock the paper, selling single copies to passersby. I sold advertising and wrote ad copy. I had to distribute the paper when it was hot off the press.

And though everyone wanted to read the paper – mostly to see if they were in it – few wanted to buy the paper. It was hard to compete with Mom-baked brownies.

I spent the week walking around the perimeter of the trailer, interviewing my classmates about the health of their businesses or who they liked in the pending election. I wrote trends pieces about how the town’s residents thought the rent was too damned high and how they wanted to be able to spend more of their money on luxury items, like those chocolately brownies. I vaguely remember writing an expose on the insurance carrier in town, who I saw as a huckster selling vapor.

“People give you money, but what do they really get in return,” I grilled him like I was Woodward or Bernstein.

One by one, the small businesses fell, exiling their owners from town, to a corner of the trailer-classroom to watch an episode of “Free to be You and Me” or to throw a sixth-grade temper tantrum, perhaps.

Naturally, the bank endured; it thrived off of the interest. The insurance carrier – who had minimal overhead costs and a contained, safe environment that put odds in his favor – stayed afloat. The baker had fistfuls of colorful cash by week’s end. And the newspaper endured, though I, too, was pretty busted. By the time I’d covered my own costs – rent, insurance, crayons – I didn’t have enough currency for much else.

I’d spent days coveting my classmates’ disposable income and how they frivolously, happily spent it on baked goods and insurance policies.

Somehow, I’d managed to get the news out, but it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t lucrative.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The AXIOS Interview: Observations on the President and the Press

This AXIOS on HBO interview with the President is generating a lot of social media buzz this week. If you’re like me and out of the HBO loop, AXIOS kindly published it online, free of charge. Here’s the link:

https://www.axios.com/full-axios-hbo-interview-donald-trump-cd5a67e1-6ba1-46c8-bb3d-8717ab9f3cc5.html

I watched it pre-dawn, with my first three cups of coffee and a notepad for visceral scribbling. I was most interested to see how Jonathan Swan formulated his questions and delivered them, and how he “managed” the President – prone to ramblings and deflections – in order to keep the interview productive and moving forward.

At least twice, the President broke the cadence of the interview to comment on Swan’s facial expressions, accusing him of smiling or smirking. This, too, is a rhetorical trick of the President’s – to redirect attention to the questioner, often disparaging the reporter in some way. Here, he seems to imply that Swan is unserious or being cheeky. What he did not do is call Swan “nasty,” or dumb or any of his other favorite insults he seems to reserve for women journalists who ask tough questions.

Swan didn’t hesitate to wade into some turbulent waters: the Federal response to COVID-19; Ghislaine Maxwell; the President’s plans to leverage the Courts to contest the election; Federal forces descending on an American city and usurping due process by essentially kidnapping protesters and holding them without charges; Black Lives Matter and civil unrest; and about his lack of regard for the late John Lewis.

Swan even asked about the intelligence reports that suggest Russia has taken out bounties on Allied troops’ heads. The President demonstrated his incuriosity about the intel. “If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” he proclaimed.

“This one didn’t reach my desk,” he insisted. And yet it’s on his desk; it’s in his briefing, and the President didn’t even bother to bring it up for discussion during his call with Putin last week (per the White House).

Swan then probed the President about widely circulated and publicized intelligence that ties Russia to supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a shocking “whataboutism” response, the President replied, “We supplied weapons to the Taliban when they were fighting Russia. … We did that, too.”

It is stunning to see a President of the United States equivocating American troops – presumably sent to the Afghanistan mountains to combat terrorism and nation build – with Russia’s aggressive, invading forces the Taliban caused to retreat long ago.

Pressed on troop levels in Afghanistan, the President acknowledged that the numbers have gone up and gone down during his Presidency, but he insists that his mission is to nearly halve the level with which the Administration began. Swan, wanting a number and a timetable on the promise, gets the President to say the U.S. will have between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan on election day 2020.

Swan is particularly effective at getting the President to eventually answer a question. Someone on Twitter suggested that it’s because of the Aussie accent, but it’s really because he fires follow-up questions and real-time fact checks at the President. The White House Press Corps, often kept to one or two questions, don’t have that luxury. It’s too easy for the President or McEnany to just point to someone else and move on.

Throughout the interview, the President makes relentless attempts to stonewall Swan. He interrupts. He talks in circles. He deflects and heads off in tangents – often leading to topics within his comfort zone: Crowd sizes. TV ratings. And why he doesn’t get enough “credit” – from whom, he doesn’t say.

In a line of questioning may be more uncomfortable for the audience than it is for the President, Swan asked the question about his “I wish her well” remarks about Ghislaine Maxwell, the accused pimp and pedo-buddy of the late Jeffrey Epstein – both, long-time friends of the President. In response, the President suggested that Epstein may have been murdered in prison, citing no evidence to support his assertion.

What the President doesn’t want to talk about is the pandemic and the more than 159,000 dead Americans. When Swan does manage to steer the President to the topic, the President flippantly dismisses statistics, including the measurably important death-per-capita data from the United States and other developed nations. The President suggests that data is flawed.

The duo’s conversation about testing is revealing, in an emperor-lacks-clothes kind of way. The President’s obstinance about testing continues. Swan points out that test results take too long – that a test result, sometimes 10 days after the swabbing, doesn’t help the patient and it doesn’t help quell the transmission of the virus.

Weeks before the Swan interview, the Trump Administration “defunded” federal testing sites they’d set up around the country. They folded the tents, pulled the personnel, and said to those communities, “You’re on your own now.”

One of so many unforced errors made by the President during the interview, he asserted, “You can test too much,” citing unnamed sources, “the manuals” and “the books.” To his credit, Swan followed up with a question about which manuals and books he was citing – knowing, of course, that the President cannot answer the question.

The part of the interview about COVID-19 and testing will now be added to the library of videos of the President’s half-year campaign to diminish the virus, to give Americans some false sense of security, to fuel conspiracy theories about it, to play wannabe doctor and pharmacist, to endanger lives.

The national lack of ambition on testing – despite the volume of tests already performed the President prefers to cite – may be our undoing. It should go without saying that the more rapid-result testing we do, the easier it becomes to isolate the virus, identify risks, to help on-the-front lines healthcare workers and facilities be proactive rather than reactive. The path to any sort of normalcy – schools reopening, businesses bouncing back, seeing each other, touching each other, encouraging the kids to play together again, going to a restaurant, going on a date, seeing live music, attending a funeral – is paved in testing.

And we’ve blown it.

About those nearly 160,000 American deaths? The President tells Swan, “It is what it is.”

Book Publishing, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Mary L. Trump’s Book: A Review

I bought Mary L. Trump, PhD’s book, “Too Much and Never Enough” not so much because I was interested in the family dynamics of the Trump clan, but because I have an (confessed) staunch disdain for men who try to silence women, and for Presidents who make people around them sign NDAs and file frivolous lawsuits to delay and degrade every publication or opinion about him. So, when I heard that the Trump family had tied the book up in court, I pre-ordered it.

It’s a thin hardback and an easy read.

In the early chapters, she struggles with voice.

At times, Trump reminds the reader that she is a clinician, highly educated in and informed about mental health and mental disease. Occasionally, she breaks from that serious tone, injecting editorial that is biting or snarky. I’m not sure those work in her favor.

A few chapters in, she hits her stride, and the book transitions into what it wanted to be from the beginning: A highly personal memoir, with decades worth of cringe-inducing memories of sadism and cruelty that runs like sap in the Trump family tree. Knowing that, you might tend to believe that this is purely “a hit piece,” written for retribution or revenge. She is wounded – and who wouldn’t be – but it becomes evident that malice isn’t her motivation. Rather, the narrative seems to indicate a patently private person’s strange sense of duty to the public, to correct the record on her family’s biography and image, including the curated and fabricated story of her Uncle’s business acumen.

The stories of family “black sheeps,” of dramatic dis-ownings, or siblings who turn against one another for their parents’ affection or post-mortem spoils, are nothing new. But the story of the Trump family is particularly tragic, because the repercussions of their greed, cruelty, and tumult have trickled down to all of us now. They’re global.

The saddest part of this story, it seems to me, is the acknowledgement that family can be so easily fractured, and that sometimes a person can spend a lifetime thinking they play a certain role in the family – thinking they are (if not well liked, then) well-loved by other members of the family. They can carry on blindly under those assumptions for years, decades even, until one day they come to realize that they didn’t have that firm standing at all, that the affection they felt for others was not reciprocated – the unsteadying realization that “I am on my own.”

I think that must’ve been how it felt in the moment Mary Trump recounts near the end of the book – a fateful phone conversation with her grandmother, the President’s mother. It’s a gut punch.

By the end, I was surprised at how viciously the President’s immediate family and inner circle denounced his niece’s recounting of her life to date. Donald, his siblings, their children? They were raised in a culture of abuse. You’ll close this book and think, “That explains so much.” It almost makes a person feel pity for the President, for the man he came to be. Almost.

Food, Travel, Culture, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

“Cancel culture” isn’t a new fad

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I read and hear a lot about “cancel culture,” Most recently, it came up in tweet conversations about the proposed boycott of GOYA foods after the company’s CEO said something nice about the President.

As far as I can tell, the term is a colloquialism turned political bone over which to fight. I see how politicians toss it into the ring and stand back, interjecting screams from time to time about its evils and why you should fear it, condemn it. I see how they compare people — citizens, constituents — to a “mob.”

I see how the ploy works, pitting fellow Americans further against one another — viciously so — not for those Americans’ own benefit, but for the politicians’ sake.

Unless I’m wrong — and please tell me if I am — the de facto definition for “cancel culture” is the idea of withdrawling support for, undermining, or even “defunding” a company, an organization, a person, an idea, a practice, a phrase, even a sculptural rendering of a person.

The goal is, in effect, to diminish that entity’s popularity, privilege, and financial stability.

Do I have that right?

If so, I wonder how this is any different than the strangely apolitical idea of the “power of the purse strings?” In other words, the act of putting your money — the greatest, most inherently capitalistic tool that any American has in their quivers — toward quashing something they find distasteful, disappointing, or unconscionable.

There’s an entire “street” in Washington DC — that begins and ends with the letter K — established so all its tenants can spend their days and nights asking our Representatives to fund this, or withhold funds from that.

Doesn’t it seem like, when they do it, it’s called governance, but when you do it, it’s labeled something less … palatable?

It seems to me that this is not a novel idea at all — giving your hard-fought earnings to things you’d like to affirm, and withholding them from entities you do not wish to support.

Everyone has a right to do that, and we already do, on all sides of the political landscape. Our purses — or wallets, or checkbooks, or ApplePay apps — are how we lobby our way through American life.

Naturally, “the power of the purse strings” isn’t nearly as sexy a rhetorical trick for politicians. The sounds-more-scary “cancel culture” rhetoric is far more effective and manipulative.

Health, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Digital News Publishers Weather the Storm After COVID-19

I spoke with digital news organizations — and some major metro newspapers, including those that have been so-called “hot zones” for COVID-19 — about how the pandemic has influenced, impeded, affirmed, or transformed content, operations, staffing, revenue, and philosophies.

From the July/August issue of Editor & Publisher magazine:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/digital-news-publishers-weather-the-storm-after-covid-19/

Health, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Liberty and Life

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I’m not a fan of memes. Too often the social-media populace relies on memes as a substitute for journalistically sound news.

But I recently saw a meme that so beautifully represented the absurdity of politicizing virus mitigation. It contrasted the enormity of the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation during WWII — the pitch-in, can-do spirit of the war-time era — with the politically obstinate Americans who refuse to wear a mask today. After all, a mask is a small, finite sacrifice proven to reduce the spread of the virus, and as a byproduct will get us all back to work, to recreation, to communing, to fully living again.

A true patriot doesn’t champion personal liberty at the very expense of the nation.

Food, Travel, Culture, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

The Problem with Monuments to Mere Mortals

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“Because I’m so big, you have to look at me. I think of myself as a monument. But sometimes I like to feel small.” — Shaq

—————-

The problem with monuments to men is that men (humans) are inherently fallible and flawed.

It’s even a Biblical tenet — that no man is without sin.

One person’s hero is often someone else’s oppressor.

To remove one statue and replace it with another seems problematic.

Create art that champions and celebrates ideas and ideals, instead. Or plant trees and create gardens in the public square; they’re naturally life affirming.

 

Photo: G.A. Peck, 2014