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

Military Service, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

On Memorial Day

My father-in-law died just two springtime’s ago. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him—often, fondly and expressed with laughter. Sometimes, it’s with regret. 

We’d come north to be closer to him after my mother-in-law passed away. We knew he’d need our attention and care as the years compounded. These were bonus years, we felt, when got to know him, when we spoke of meaningful things, including his reflections on life, people, history, politics, and even war. He’d tell us his catalog of stories, as if he’d never told them before, as if we hadn’t heard them dozens of times. We knew that one day, we’d miss hearing him tell them. 

That day didn’t come until he was 95 years old, after he’d led a full life, equal parts remarkable and ordinary. 

There are days when we feel the deep, profound loss, a black hole that cannot be sated, always threatening to suck you into its mysterious depths. 

Those are the days when I think of all the questions we neglected to ask, all the memories he never got to share or didn’t want to.

Through his eyes, we’d seen the world in a different way. He could change your way of thinking with his perspective. He did that for me on numerous occasions, about things that I already thought I’d had all figured out—poverty and frugality, simplicity, curiosity, race, charity, death, religion, friendship, family, humor, war. 

What a privilege to have had the time with him, I know, and I’m especially aware of it today, when so many families gather to mourn their loved ones who never came home from war. I think of their generations of loved ones deprived of the simple moments strung together to make a complicated, fulfilled life. I think of those who never got to say goodbye, left with medals, mementoes and incessant, gnawing what-could-have-beens.

My father-in-law and all four of his brothers served in WWII, and they each came home to their family—perhaps not whole and unscathed, but alive. I’m sure not a day passed for any of them when they didn’t think of their fellow Americans, their brothers and sisters in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, who perished.

One of the stories my father-in-law used to tell was how he’d come back home from his “island-hopping” tour of the South Pacific and made a pitstop in San Francisco before making the cross-continental trek home to New Haven, Connecticut. He called home right away. His father answered in an impatient bark: Who the hell is this?

It’s me, his third eldest son said into the receiver, explaining his current location.

His father softened, but pointed out that it was the middle of the night in New Haven, Connecticut, and that he’d been awoken from a sound sleep by the phone call.

When my father-in-law told this story, he’d chuckle at the memory. Who the hell is this, he’d say, imitating his father’s gruff-Yankee tone.

Of course, his parents, siblings, and community must’ve been relieved. One son was on his way home—news worth a sleepless night, which is why we’d all laugh along during his retelling.

Today, I think of all those families who didn’t get a call like that, who received entirely different, generationally devastating news, instead. May we take today to be still and reflect on their profound loss and sacrifice.

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.

Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

For the Swag: Donald J. Trump’s Path from Brand Magnate to Firebrand, from President to Pariah

It is the final full day of the 45th President’s Presidency. Retired Presidents go on to any number of new passions and pastimes. In his 90s, Jimmy Carter is still building homes for the poor. Bill Clinton started a philanthropic foundation – in his own name, of course. George W. Bush took up painting, and Obama reinvented himself as a film producer.

Donald J. Trump’s post-Presidency may be a bit more complicated, and – considering the number of legal defenses he may need to mount – quite expensive. 

Sculpting the image
Prior to his candidacy, many Americans were more familiar with Donald J. Trump the TV personality/Mark Burnett-created persona – or Trump, the serial philanderer – than they were with Trump, the real estate guy or, later, Trump, the brand guy. To hear the President recount his career, it was lucrative and luxurious. Leveraging his friends in the media – and his sometimes PR rep, “John Baron” – he regaled us with name-dropping anecdotes, sexual scandal, and gold glitz.

As the final days of his Presidency wane – and thanks to David Enrich’s deep reporting – we now know that image was crafted on credit. 

Brand image has always been paramount to Donald Trump. He slapped his name across buildings and casinos, board games, boxes of butchered meat, bottles of beer, wine and water, a model agency, ghost-written titles, and even a sham of a “university.” These were the Trump business brands. They tend to come and go. 

But Donald J. Trump is also a political brand – a brand he’s been cultivating for decades, long before the infamous escalator descent.

Here’s a clip of the President being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, who prompted him to flirt aloud with the idea of a Presidential bid, way back in 1988. 

Though the President is fond of telling his rally crowds that he isn’t, by nature, a politician, Trump has been honing his political image for decades.

His donations to local, State and national political candidates were spread across progressive and conservative ideologies. He’s given modest donations to Mitch McConnell, George W. Bush and his brother, Jeb, and John McCain. He also gave money to Andrew Cuomo, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and the man who bested him in the 2020 election, the 46th President, Joseph R. Biden.

Trump seemed less to have political principle and more to desire political access and sway. He didn’t want to drain the swamp; he wanted to lord over it. 

As his one-term Presidency comes to an end, gone are the easy grifts, gone are the Trump steaks, the failed casinos, the fraudulent university, and the PGA tournaments held at Trump clubs. 

Gone now is the Presidency, and should he be impeached a second time, gone is the opportunity to run again. 

But the images of the Capitol under siege – a writhing sea of Trump- and MAGA-paraphernalia on display – prove that Trump’s political image somehow still sells.  

The Presidency as profit center

There are theorists who’ve suggested that Trump didn’t really want to be President and that he didn’t expect to win. Rather, they surmise, his ego led him to the campaign, and his eye for opportunism got him vested in the idea.

Though candidate Trump promised the nation that he’d divest from his businesses and put his adult children in charge of the Trump Organization, there’s no evidence that he ever did that, and his children appear to have their own political aspirations.

Some of Trump’s properties hit the jackpot after he took his inaugural Oath. In the first year of his Presidency alone, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, reportedly raked in $40 million

Some of that money didn’t just buy accommodations; it bought access to the President. 

Every time the President went to play golf at one of his courses – reportedly, nearly 300 trips from the start of his Presidency to the end of 2020 – taxpayer monies were automatically dumped into his coffers. 

Mar-a-Lago proved politically lucrative for the Trumps. As recently as New Year’s Eve – while the world wrestled with a global pandemic – Mar-a-Lago hosted a maskless gala at upwards of $1,000/plate, with the promise of rubbing elbows with the President on the dance floor, to the tune of aging 1990s pop stars. 

He stood them up. 

But not all of the Trump properties reaped this good fortune, especially those that didn’t afford access to the Trump family. The Doral Golf Club, for example, was hobbled even before the pandemic hit, and last year, the club laid off approximately 500 employees.

When one door closes …

Two years into the Trump Presidency, during a long weekend in New York City, I saw firsthand the waning popularity of the Trump brand. I walked around Trump Parc, which occupies prime real estate on the edge of Central Park. The ground floor of the building – formerly occupied by retailers – mostly sat empty. FOR RENT signs were perched in some of the windows.

Trump Parc

One of the few occupying businesses – an Asian antiquities dealer – was closed, on a bustling springtime weekend. 

The skyscraper at Columbus Circle that bears Trump’s name stood tall over the crowded, perpetually-in-motion intersection. At dusk, the building was cast in shadows, the lights inside softly illuminating the rooms behind the tinted glass. Most of the building was dark, with fewer than a dozen rooms seemingly occupied. I stopped and watched it for a while. A few levels up from the street, I observed a man sitting in a chair, pulled up close to the glass, looking out over the relative chaos below. His legs were crossed, and he leaned back into the chair, taking it all in, alone and still. It felt … prophetic.

Some formerly Trump-branded buildings and businesses have removed reference to his name altogether.

The Trump Plaza condo board in West Palm Beach voted unanimously to remove the Trump name from the complex.

New York City severed concessions ties with its native son.

Americans have long had an affinity for celebrity and power. Places where Presidents walked are hallowed ground. This is the land where we erect placards and charge admission to see historic provenance – think, “George Washington slept here.”

If you were to browse the marketing copy of Trump’s former estate in Fairfield County, Connecticut – listed for sale by its current owners for years – you’d find no mention at all of the property’s past affiliation with an American President.

It would appear that Donald J. Trump’s personal and business brands have been greatly diminished by his controversial Presidency – particularly its seditious conclusion. However, his political brand endures. And Trump’s most committed fans buy his swag like tweens buy boy-band merch. 

Banners. Flags. Bumper stickers.

MAGA hats. T-shirts.

Hoodies. Leggings. Puzzles.

Car, truck and boat wraps.


Even flagrantly hazardous plastic straws – to simultaneously sip and own the libs.

What is the value of the Trump-family political brand? It’s hard to say. How much of a cut does the Trump family get through official licensing? How much of it represents others now profiteering off the Trump brand?

How much did the President raise with fundraising campaigns like “Stop the Steal?”

How enriched have the Trumps become?

It must be a sizable sum of wealth – a money grab so attractive the President deemed it worthy of destabilizing democracy. 

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.”

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.