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Instead of Protecting Sources, Journalists Burn Them Now
How The New York Times got Pentagon leaker Jack Teixeira arrested and why Discord is now evil
When Daniel Ellsberg came to The New York Times in 1971 to disclose the Pentagon Papers, he encountered journalists that saw their role in society as a needed check on the people in power. These journalists knew that their job was to be contrarian and sceptical of the government and of big corporations. These journalists insisted, against initial legal advice sought by their publishers, that the material in the Pentagon Papers be published to expose how the government and its military had systematically lied to the American people for decades about the war and its horrible realities. Journalists at the Times and at The Washington Post did their utmost to protect their source and stuck out for Ellsberg, even after he surrendered to the authorities and faced charges under the Espionage Act. These journalists knew that Ellsberg had done the right thing and had acted in the interest of the public. They also knew that, out of self interest, they had to do their utmost to protect their source or no whistleblower would ever trust them again, which would negate the possibility of more exclusives like this. For the Pentagon Papers story, the Times won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1972. To many people living in the US today, Daniel Ellsberg is a national hero and a paragon of ethical behaviour in the face of government corruption and anti-democratic tendencies in the state executive.
Contrast this with the current story of “the Pentagon leaker”, Jack Teixeira. A kid, barely twenty years old, working part-time in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, who missed his own high school graduation because of training obligations. When he leaked a collection of documents about the role of the US and NATO in the War in Ukraine to his internet friends, The New York Times enlisted help from Bellingcat — a news outlet that has ties to the Atlantic Council and thus NATO and the US government1 — to unmask the identity of the leaker. Instead of contacting the source, protecting him and working with him to figure out if he had more documents, the Times actually drove the law enforcement investigation that got Teixeira arrested. Times reporters seem to have led the FBI to the house where the whistleblower lived and he is now possibly facing a lifetime in prison under the Espionage Act. The Times then went on to name Teixeira publicly and produced a whole series of stories painting him as a dangerous gun enthusiast, loner and incel2 gamer with dangerous intentions. Aside from the idiocy of accusing someone who volunteers to be a soldier of liking weapons, this is an incredibly stupid and short-sighted move for the very newspaper that published the Pentagon Papers. It seems in the last fifty years, journalists have forgotten why they should always side with the underdog who wants to publish information against those in power, who want to hide it. If you don’t do it because you adhere to the ethics of your profession, at least do it out of enlightened self-interest.
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Why did the Times burn a potential source instead of protecting him? I have no idea. But if I would have to guess it is because Teixeira didn’t go to the press with his material, but leaked it to his friends on the internet. This decision on the part of the Times seems motived by hurt feelings, rather than by journalistic instincts — much like the crusade many mainstream media outlets have been leading against WikiLeaks for over a decade now.
My own mentors in the trade taught me that a good journalist does not care how he or she came by a story, nor should they be overly concerned with the motives of a whistleblower. The only measure that counts is if it is a good story. Is it believable and does publishing it serve the interest of the public? Those are the only considerations a journalist should have. Nobody should care why Teixeira published these documents or where and how he published them. What counts is what’s in the documents. That is not the kind of reporting the Times and Washington Post are pushing at the moment, though. It’s all about who the leaker is and in what environment he decided to disclose his confidential documents.
You can tell that this reporting is not in good faith and not meant to serve the public, because if it was, the Times and their colleagues would ask very different questions. If you had a genuine journalistic interest in the question of how the material got out, instead of the more pressing question of its contents, the first question you would ask would be: How is it that an airman first class (a low enlisted rank) of a backwater reserve unit, who is barely out of his teens, gets access to top secret documents about a war he has nothing to do with? But instead of investigating what this leak means for the NATO war effort in Ukraine, and the US’ involvement in it, or who might benefit from this information being leaked, these journalists concentrate on shooting the messenger. The problem here, according to The New York Times, is not that the US might be more involved in a proxy war in Ukraine and that this war isn’t going as well as we have been led to believe, the problem are young men who play too many video games and don’t have enough sex. And how dare a soldier actually like guns!
In forgetting the principles they used to uphold, The New York Times and their colleagues at other large publications are serving the interests of the powerful, instead of fulfilling their role in guarding the public against them.
The Contents of the Leak
I would love to do what the Times hasn’t deigned to and tell you what the contents of these leaked documents actually mean. But there really is no way for me to do this responsibly. This is not for lack of trying. The problem is not access to the material or related to what is actually in these files. I simply have no way to put what the leaked documents say in context — the basis for any good journalistic reporting. I’ve tried for over a year now to build myself an accurate picture of what the situation on the ground in Ukraine looks like. I’ve spent countless hours reading articles, watching news reports and trawling all kinds of social media sites for photos, videos and audio recordings from the combat zone. There is an overabundance of material out there, but none of it seems trustworthy.
Everything I read in British, French, German and US-based media on this topic is very obviously biased towards the NATO viewpoint — the better sources openly admit getting almost all of their information straight from Ukrainian governmental propaganda. Everything I read from Russian sources is obviously biased in the opposite direction. The supposedly raw footage you find on social media sites is even more clearly one-sided propaganda, mostly from the Ukrainians. Despite the wealth of material on this subject, or maybe precisely because of it, it is almost impossible to balance out biases and assemble an accurate picture of how the war is going. Western military analysts actually openly make fun of Putin and his generals in their writing instead of providing an actual analysis of why, if the war is going that badly for the Russians, Ukraine hasn’t simply won it yet. Russian milbloggers advance narratives that are easily identified as misleading or even plainly wrong just by looking at simple facts shining through the other side’s propaganda. All I can conclude from over a year of looking at this stuff in detail, is that the war isn’t going well for either side. Or, possibly, that the people actually in charge, both in Russia and in Ukraine and Washington, are secretly happy with the situation as it is. Either way, I have basically given up to form an accurate picture for myself at this point. It simply doesn’t seem to be possible with the limited resources at my disposal.
Now, if it is impossible for me to even judge how the war is going in most basic terms, how could I even begin to understand if what is in these leaked materials is believable? Or if they were somehow manipulated. I can’t even tell who benefits by these documents being published, because I have no clear picture of the real war goals on either side (beyond the obvious propaganda). Sometimes, as a journalist, you simply have to admit what you don’t know and move on. This is why I don’t feel qualified to comment on the contents of these documents, at least for the time being. I rather concentrate on what I know: What the press coverage of them says about the state of journalism these days.
They’re Coming for the Gamers Now
Some readers might have only heard of the messaging platform Discord when The Washington Post started calling Teixeira’s documents “the Discord Leaks”. In the last few days, Discord was remarkably quickly demonised by journalists who probably never used it before. So I think it’s reasonable to have a look at what Discord actually is and what this sudden attention by the mainstream press means for gamers and society in general.
Discord is basically Slack for gamers. It’s a chatroom software that includes an audio/video communication service. Since the voice services that are built into multiplayer games are often tried to the social features of the game’s publisher — and since there are a ton of those and no unified friends list across them exists — gamers started using Discord to talk to their friends while playing games. It’s a centralised place where gamers can gather and, at least for a long time, it had much better audio quality than any in-game system and even many corporate work-from-home and other VoIP solutions. It really started to take off when Twitch streamers started using it to talk to their gaming buddies on stream and to provide a 24/7 place to hang out for their community, independent of the streaming platform’s chat.
Discord is used all around the world by friends to socialise, play video games, meet virtually to play pen & paper roleplaying games and to watch TV shows and movies together. During the pandemic, it provided a much needed lifeline for communities and groups of friends that were prevented to meet face-to-face by government restrictions. I’ve been using it to record podcasts with remote guests for about seven years now. Because users can create their own so-called “servers” for their community, Discord often fulfils the role of a social network that is limited to a group of friends or a tight-knit community of strangers. Since these instances only exist in the Discord app, they aren’t part of the public internet, much like a messenger chat. People tend to discuss things more freely here and voice opinions that they believe in strongly, but that would get them banned or shunned in public places like Twitter or Facebook. In essence, Discord is like a mixture of IRC and old-school internet forums for millennials and zoomers. With the added benefit of hanging out in a voice channel while you play your favourite online game together.
While content on Discord is not end-to-end encrypted and can be easily indexed and accessed by the company providing the service, and thus by law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, it is often considered by authoritarian commentators in the press as being part of the “dark web” — i.e. the part of the internet that can’t be easily searched. These people don’t like any digital space where citizens can gather and speak their mind without fear of having their speech indexed, catalogued, surveilled and — if needed — censored. They believe that people who exercise their basic human right to speak their mind freely in this way are dangerous. This is why Discord is now being framed as a breeding ground for dangerous extremism, amid a wider push for more censorship and surveillance on the internet that includes the proposed RESTRICT Act in the US. The press is doing their part, associating Discord with the much-maligned meme forum 4chan and making it sound like the place is populated by gun-toting incels who hate women, vote for Donald Trump and want to destroy civil society. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Discord is a web service like any other. Like every single place where humans gather, it is full of wonderful, lovely, stupid and horrible things. It’s just that people tend to be more honest and true to actual real feelings there, as they’re not subject to hysterical Twitter mobs.
Not that journalists or politicians would know, or care about, what is really going on. I have a feeling that what we are seeing here is a concerted effort not only to demonise Discord in order to push for more control of digital communications, but also another smear of gamer culture in general. Probably because it works so well every time these people try it — be it in the wake of school shootings or unwanted phenomenon like Gamergate. Which is deeply ironic and also very sad, considering how many current movies and TV shows are based on nerd culture like comics, video games and even Dungeons & Dragons. While on one hand, the press loves to pretend they are down with geekdom, they also seem to take every opportunity to deride its actual fans — especially when they are white and male. These people love to pretend they enjoy video games, but their coverage of things like Discord shows that, in reality, they have no grasp of gamer culture at all. Just like the public at large, who don’t understand people who’d rather sit at home playing with virtual spaceships than going to a club or a football game. Which is why scaring the public of geeks and making fun of nerds always works so well for the press and for politicians who want to get their latest Orwellian law passed. It’s worked with Doom and metal music in the ‘90s and it will work with “the Discord leaks” today.
It’s one thing for politicians to use people who don’t know better to get what they want. But that the press is continually siding with those in power against those they are supposed to represent really makes me mad. In this light, it does not surprise me that young people discuss classified war files in a private gaming hangout instead of trusting the press with the material. And who can blame them? Especially after what is happening to Jack Teixeira right now.
Full disclosure: I am ashamed to admit that I backed Bellingcat’s Kickstarter for £47 in 2017. What can I say? It was a more naïve time back then — or maybe I was just a bit dumber in 2017. They never sent me my backer rewards, by the way.
An incel, or involuntary celibate, is a member of an online community who is of the opinion that they cannot have a sexual relationship, even though they’d want to. The members of these communities, usually younger men, often project their unhappiness about this on the other sex. In my opinion, the term “incel” is usually used as a smear. There are probably orders of magnitude more people who get insulted in this way than there are people who actually self-identify with the term. Someone like Teixeira, who is either 21 or 22 years old, is way too young to be classed in such a way, I feel. A male nerd being a virgin at 22 wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary, I would think.