Why does Subway persist in telling the old lie about how to lose weight?

Christmas is over and we’re rolling towards the New Year, which means that once again Subway, the fast-food sandwich chain, is running one of the most deceptive television commercials of the past several years.

The background music—The 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky—drives the commercial.  That’s the light classical piece in which the drums sound like cannon fire.  While the lead-up to this highly recognizable moment of explosion plays, we see four or five people getting ready to bite away at a hamburger piled high with sauce, cheese and condiments.  The people represent a variety of types.  As we see a close-up shot of one of the heroes of the commercial chomping down on the big, bad and greasy burger, the cannons start to explode…and so do the people.  We see a succession of buttons popping off the pants of the eaters.  Then we see one person break a chair and another break a bed, all to Tchaikovsky’s battlefield-like explosions.  The actors are a bit chunky but not obese, yet the implication is clear: the fast-food burgers caused the person to gain weight, which has led to the destruction of clothes and furniture.

The tone of the commercial suddenly changes as a narrator starts to tell us that if it’s time to lose some of those unwanted pounds that people should try two Subway sandwiches, both of which have both cheese and meat and one of which has bacon.

And why are these sandwiches great for losing weight?  Subway’s narrator gives us the reason: because they only have seven grams of fat each.

And therein lies the deception.

Cutting down on the fat you eat has nothing to do with weight loss.  Now there are other reasons to cut down on fat—including avoiding heart disease, diabetes and possibly several types of cancer.

But Subway does not talk about anything but losing weight.  And losing weight involves consuming fewer calories than what you burn to live.  In other words, you could eat nothing but fat and lose weight if the number of calories you eat is less than what your body is using.  For example, I’ve read in many places that a typical male adult should consume 2,200 to 2,600 calories a day.  If an adult male eats only 1,500-1,800 calories of fat a day, he can thus lose from one to two pounds a week.  And if an adult male eats nothing but lettuce and blueberries but chows down 3,000-3,500 calories of these very healthy foods per day, he’ll blimp up in no time.

I didn’t even bother trying to find out what the calorie count is for these Subway sandwiches, because it does not matter to my analysis.  If you say that adding peanut butter to your fuel tank will help a car get better mileage, you’re lying.  If you say that toppling Sadam Hussein will hurt alQaeda, you’re lying. 

And when Subway says you can lose weight eating these sandwiches because of low fat content, it is lying.  The music and the good-natured humor of the buttons popping make it a very entertaining lie, but it’s a lie nonetheless, one that many purveyors of processed foods and restaurant cuisine tell often. 

I want to close by wishing all OpEdge readers and their families a joyous, creative and prosperous 2011!  See you next year.

One lesson from the Tang Dynasty: the wealthy always find a way to control things.

I’ve been reading an excellent history of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled most of China from 618-907, during which time China experienced a Renaissance in literature and the arts, especially poetry.  It’s China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty by Mark Edward Lewis.  

Many books pad their pages past the direct subject to one degree or another.  For example, one writer will relate her factual tale with her reaction to it, another will reference the rock music and movie stars popular at the time.  Lewis’s padding adds richness to his story.  He projects the narrative both backward to the dynasties before the Tang and forward to the dynasties afterwards, especially the Song and Ming.  The result is a wonderful encapsulation of all of Chinese history, which of course gives an added level of meaning to the story of the Tang.

What I love about reading history is the many parallels I find to our current society and situation.  I have written before, for example, about the similarities between the United States in the post-War era and Spain in the 16th century under Phillip II.

Here’s the most interesting parallel between Tang and our current society that I’ve come across so far:  It was during the 300-year reign of the Tang that examination replaced coming from a wealthy family as the primary means of attaining a good government job.  We could call it the ascendancy of the meritocracy and it sounds a little like what happened in the United States beginning with establishment of the civil service in the 1880s.  The SAT and other standardized tests have in many ways become a similar gateway to a promising career that the examination system was in Imperial China.

And yet by the end of the Tang, virtually all the good government jobs were filled by the children of the wealthy.  How did it happen that a meritocracy developed that resulted in rewarding the rich rather than the inherently talented?  Lewis says (pages 203-204) that:

  • The wealthy were more able than others to spend a lot of money preparing their children for the exams. 
  • The exams were given only in the expensive and often faraway capitals, which put a financial burden on the poor students and their families, but not on the wealthy.
  • The little public education that existed in China eroded with the growth of the importance of the examination.  Convenient for the wealthy, who were also starting to pay fewer taxes, we learn elsewhere in the book
  • Many of the examiners knew the families of the wealthy applicants taking the exams.  Let’s call it the Imperial Chinese version of being a legacy at an Ivy League university.

Sounds familiar.  I imagine all the nicely situated but not super-wealthy Tang-era  families churning with anxiety as they tried to keep up with the wealthy in preparing their children for the examinations and ingratiating themselves with the examiners.  Do you think the mothers compared the benefits of the various private tutors over tea at the local Qĭ-Jiă (Star-buck in Chinese according to one online dictionary)? Do you suppose that among the voluminous output of poetry during the Tang there were guides to studying for the examination?

A.P. headline writer decides to take an unfair pot shot at President Obama for his so-called “entourage.”

The Associated Press, which supplies virtually all of the national and international news to thousands of newspapers across the country, published an article early this morning about the upcoming winter vacation to Hawaii that President Obama and his family have planned.  The article is a well-written feature account of Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and how the residents react to having the President in their midst for a few days every year.

It’s not necessarily my kind of story.   I find that feel-good articles abut the personal lives of our elected officials invest them with some of the attributes of royalty, which is, after all, what we fought against in the Revolutionary War.  But for such a story, this one is okay.

Except for the headline, which attempts to turn the article against the President by the use of one word: “entourage.”

Here’s the headline:

Obama, family, entourage expected soon in Kailua

But the story is entirely about the President, his family and the residents of the island. The article has not one reference to the staff or security people who will accompany the President on his trip, so why is a word referring to them in the headline?  When you read the story, you realize that the more appropriate headline would have been “Obama and family expected soon in Kailua.”  But the headline writer added the word “entourage” and the editor stuck with it.

Nitpicking, you may say.  But is it?

I went back over the use of the word “entourage” in news stories about presidents over the past five years and in every other case I found that the news story is about the groups of people serving presidents of various countries, including of the United States.  Additionally, most but not all of the uses of “entourage” attach at least a little negative connotation to the word, either a questioning of its cost, size or honesty.

Here are some examples:

Now why would the headline writer (who is usually a different person than the writer of the article) want to use “entourage” in a headline when the story is not about the “entourage?”

My answer: to make the president look bad.

Many words carry with them mythic associations that can change over time.  In the case of entourage, there are three layers of mythic association, two quite recent, that make its use at least slightly pejorative, no matter the context. 

  1. Merriam Webster’s defines entourage as “one’s attendants or subordinates,” which strongly implies that royalty is involved.  Entourage has always had a slightly negative nuance of hangers-on, people who serve the ego of or attach themselves to “modern royalty” such as boxers, basketball players or rock stars.
  2. Since the ascent of the TV show, entourage has acquired a new meaning, “a group of young men who hang around all day smoking dope and talking about their dreams.”  I would assert that at this juncture in time, this meaning is the primary one for a large number of Americans.  Of course, we don’t ever like our President taking a toke, and we don’t want to think of his advisors as a bunch of loose-end guys with whom he’s been hanging since elementary school.
  3. A few months back, Michelle Bachman in another of her seemingly endless stream of highly exaggerated numbers (some would call them “big lies”), used the word “entourage” to impute the size and cost of the security people and staff members going with the President to India.  When attached to the President, “entourage” has now become a code word on the far right that suggests that: 1) Obama’s election came because of his “celebrity” not his qualifications, 2) more than other Presidents, President Obama has tried to increase the imperial trappings of the presidency. 

Three meanings, and all negative when applied to the President.  And yet the story had nothing to do with Obama’s staff.   A headline writer and editor of a primary media source for most Americans went out of their way to put a little anti-Obama message into the headline, which is the most-read and sometimes the only read part of all articles. 

Media use census data to divide the country and keep its focus away from more important issues.

In yesterday’s OpEdge entry, I analyzed how the media covered the release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s recent voluminous report.  I found it strange that the New York Times decided to focus its coverage on the fact that the suburbs have seen a large increase in the percentage of foreign-born residents and not on the fact that virtually everywhere across the country, households have less income than they did five years ago.

I want to do what I call thought-process analysis, a kind of deductive reasoning that tries to construct a likely thought process that people may go through when reacting to something or given some information. What I want to analyze is how people react to reading, seeing or hearing a certain piece of news.

Let’s start with the emotional level. When you read, see or hear news, the emotional part of the reaction reduces down to a simple and immediate decision—is this good (for me) or bad (for me).  That’s the first emotion and everything else plays off of that, even if you change the emotion once you get more facts.

Now taking into account all the rhetoric that politicians and pundits have thrown around recently about immigration, the economy and the American dream, ask yourself this question:

Will most people view the fact that household income has shrunk almost everywhere in the U.S. as a good thing or a bad thing?

Virtually everyone will view it as a very bad thing that household income has shrunk (except perhaps for those few who realize that the shrinkage has resulted in more profit for owners and investors and like that fact).  The very idea that incomes are falling even as fewer people can find jobs is a rather severe indictment of our economic policies, which remain anchored in the idea that the unregulated free market solves all problems.  The various responses that people will propose to address this trend will tend to fall on either side of the left-right divide.   But in all cases, the focus will be on the “how,” because virtually everyone agrees that we have to change the “what.”

Let’s go through a similar analysis for the trend that the Times decided to feature and make into the key fact to remember about the report:    

Will most people view the fact that a greater percentage of suburban residents are immigrants almost everywhere in the U.S. as a good thing or a bad thing?

No need to go to the studies—we know the verdict is mixed.  Many of us just don’t care who our neighbors are as long as they cut the grass and keep the noise down.  Some embrace the idea of a more diverse society. But many will see the news as another sign that immigrants are taking over and ruining our country.  None of my thousand independently operating minds (joke) is in the anti-immigration campaign, and I consider the common arguments that immigrants take jobs that Americans could/would fill while depressing U.S. wages to be specious and proven false by real economic research.  To my way of thinking, direct analogues to the anti-immigration stand exist in both those who deny global warming and those who believe in Creationism.  Be that as it may, the collective reaction is different from the news that household income has shrunk in two ways:

  1. The country will be divided on how they react to the news about immigration.
  2. The issue is a matter of “is this good?” and not “what do we do?”  Put in another way, we are discussing a religious issue, not a scientific one.

We’re wading in a little deep now so hold on steady: “How” is what science and the scientific method is all about.  We know global warming exists, how do we slow it down and protect people from its harmful side effects?  No one likes to see incomes shrink, how do we get them growing again?

The discussion of immigration typically conjures deep-seated and irrational beliefs that societies have always held regarding the mysterious “other.”  Is immigration good or bad? To a great extent, it often depends on what you believe. Thus, the immigration story inherently revolves around “belief,” which, of course, means that we have entered the realm of religion. 

Issues of belief often create a kind of intellectual gridlock that prevents action by society.  We can see this syndrome most clearly in the global warming debate.  Because the news media keeps alive the debate “does it exist” (similar to “is immigration good?”), we never get around to discussing the scientific question of how to address it.

In the case of the immigration issue, the Times presents a story that has no inherent value-system attached to it—more foreign-born are living in suburbs—so the natural reaction is that people use the fact to support their own deep-held beliefs.  It helps them to dig in and creates intellectual gridlock.

There is a value-system inherent in the decline in incomes and everyone agrees about it—it’s bad.  So the impact of replacing the real news—people are making less money—with a less newsworthy item—more immigrants in the suburbs—is to divide the country more than it is already divided on an issue that is no doubt of less importance to everyone in the long run.  The dividing action leads to a kind of paralysis in the nation’s will that mirrors the gridlock that we see in Congress on a growing number of issues.

The census report news coverage shows how the media shapes our beliefs by deciding what to cover.

By vote of news coverage, one of the secondary news stories today is the release yesterday of the “5-Year American Community” study by the U.S. Census Bureau.  The way that the news media covered the news is an interesting case study on how the media sifts through facts and decides what’s important and what’s not.

Most news media remain local in orientation, so it’s only natural that most of the stories on the new census report focus on what happened locally.  Some examples include The Detroit Free Press, Deseret News, Newark Star-Ledger, Philadelphia Inquirer, Birmingham News,  and even the usually national-looking Washington Post.

Many focused on local segregation patterns in reaction to a Brookings Institute study that said that the census report showed that the U.S. was less segregated than expected.  Segregation therefore became a focal point for much but not all of the local coverage.  Among national media, only USA Today took the Brookings bait, declaring in its analysis of the census report that there was still a surprising amount of segregation across the country.  Brookings leans left and USA Today is slightly left of center so it’s not surprising that implicit in both the report and the “rebuttal” is the idea that segregation is a bad thing (and I agree that segregation is bad).

The New York Times took another tack in attempting to define the big picture takeaway from the new census findings—the 10 words and one idea that everyone will remember.

Before analyzing the Times enormous three-page coverage of the census report, let’s take a look at what’s in the report.  The U.S. Census Bureau makes that easy in its 10+ page news release about the voluminous report.

The report provides sample topics by which anyone can pull information for 670,000 distinct geographic areas across the nation.  Here are the sample topics:

  • Poverty
  • Value of housing
  • Travel time to work
  • Married couples with children under 18
  • Educational levels
  • Spanish speakers
  • Household income
  • Foreign-born

That’s a lot of data the two New York Times reporters who wrote the article and their researchers must have sifted through.

The Times article consists of one long column on the first page of national news, followed by two complete pages, one of which continues the national story and the other of which focuses on the New York metropolitan area.

The Times created charts for three trends it uncovered—let’s call them three finalists for “news story we remember.”  The lion’s share of the Times coverage revolved around one of these three trends, including headline, first paragraph and about half of the succeeding paragraphs.  The other two trends got very brief mentions.

Here are the three trends, and then you try to guess which one the Times covered extensively, the one therefore proposed as the key fact to remember:

  1. Household incomes fell in three-quarters of all counties
  2. The suburbs have seen an explosion in the population of foreign-born
  3. Most of the wealth remains in cities

Now I’ve seen other studies and news items addressing all three of these trends over the past few years, so none is a total “gee whiz.”

So am I living in some weird alternate reality or did everyone else think that the shrinkage of household income was the main story? With unemployment dancing around 10% and daily reports of retirement financial woes, how could it not be?

But it wasn’t for the Times.  The Times put virtually all its reportorial muscle into reporting the increase in the population of foreign born living in the suburbs.  Only, the Times doesn’t call them “foreign-born” as the Census Bureau does.  It calls them “immigrants.”

And the headline writer couldn’t even get the headline right: Immigrants Make Paths to Suburbia, Not Cities.

That’s not what the data or the article say, though:  The data and article focus on the fact that the population of immigrants in the suburbs has grown exponentially.  That does not mean that the new immigrants are coming from outside the U.S., as the words “immigrants make paths to suburbia, not cities” suggests, implies and explicitly states.  The history of all immigration in this country would suggest that many foreign-born move first to cities and then from there to suburbs.

I’m not going to question why the Times focused on “immigration” instead of shrinking incomes, but in tomorrow’s blog entry I want to explore what the impact of that decision could have on the American people and our national dialogue on critical issues.


Another liberal writes the history of the past election and forgets about the progressive rally.

I thought I was done raging about the fact that so many liberal commentators are holding the Comedy Central rally up as the one mass initiative on the liberal side of the aisle during the last election season, especially when comparing liberal mass actions to the Glen Beck rally and other Tea party confabulations.  These liberal writers forget about the other liberal Washington, D.C. rally on October 2nd, which represented a coalition of progressive and labor groups (and not the predilections of TV personalities).  As I have stated before, all three rallies attracted about the same size crowd.

Yes, I thought I had spewed all my angry words about this issue.

But now comes Thomas Frank, the armchair liberal who wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas and The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Mr. Frank has held up Comedy Central rally as the symbolic liberal act of the 2010 election cycle in his essay titled “The Fatal Center” in this month’s Harper’s

Frank’s point, which has real merit, is that the Democrats rushed to the center in the election, instead of remaining true to their liberal-left heartstrings.  Then he introduces Jon Stewart’s rally (I added the bold):

“I was thinking about all this as I watched the last act of the 2010 election cycle, comedian Jon Stewart’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity,’ jokingly known as the ‘million moderate march…Here at last was the liberal counterpart to the Tea Party movement.”

Wrong, Mr. Frank: The liberal counterpoint to the Tea Party movement was the progressive-liberal rally, which the mainstream news media practically ignored and which everyone including liberals immediately forgot about.

Frank goes on to say that the Stewart rally was really a centrist move, which proves his point about liberals moving towards the center.  If he had selected the October 2nd  progressive rally as his example, he would not have made his case, since that rally stayed true to long-time progressive and liberal ideals.

I can understand why the mainstream media and the right-wing Foxites would want to replace a progressive initiative symbolically with the actions of pranksters.  But why has the liberal media formulated this inaccurate and in a way offensive conflation?

My only explanation is that it is another in a series of moves by so-called progressives to distance themselves from the labor movement, which was a major organizer of the progressive-labor Washington rally, similar to President Obama’s misguided embrace of union-busting charter schools.   

I’m old enough to remember where I was the night John Lennon died.

Thirty years ago on the evening of December 8, I was working as a fill-in writer for the award winning 10:00 pm news show on KTVU, the independent Oakland, California broadcast television station. 

(To give you a flavor of what it was like to be in TV news in the early 80’s: a month earlier, I had been the producer of NBC’s coverage in San Francisco of the Reagan-Carter election and six months later I was an on-air reporter for the first nationally broadcast business news show on TV.) 

I was sitting at my shared space typing away on the rewrite of an A.P. story when the blond kid who worked the assignment desk starts to shout and wave around some perforated paper he had just pulled from the wire machine.  I can’t remember his name but he was a beefy offensive lineman kind of young man, whose open and friendly facial characteristics suggested he would be embarrassed saying a curse word. Like everyone who worked for KTVU news at that time, he was idealistic, hardworking and dedicated to the news director.

So our beefy tow-headed nighttime assignment editor starts yelling, “John Lennon was murdered.”  And there is a strange mixture of terror and delight on his face, the terror telling everyone that John Lennon was one of his biggest heroes, but the delight expressing what all of us knew: that we were going to destroy the competition in the ratings that night because everyone else had an 11:00 show and ours started an hour earlier.

And we did destroy the competition.  I was part of a team of several writers and editors who used file footage and news morgues to put together a 10 or 15 minute news story and retrospective on Lennon.  The KTVU 10:00 pm news experienced one of the highest ratings it ever scored.  If I remember correctly, by 10:30 pm the local NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates had all begun to change their regular programming in some way to make room for the monumental news story.  Remember Lennon was assassinated at the very dawn of the expansion of television media by cable and satellite TV and long before the eruption of cable news on Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the Internet. 

Memory plays out in the mind in a series of facts and images, many faded, many distorted by one or two attributes that tend to dominate the remembering of the moment over time.  But sometimes a memory bursts inside the mind that is so crystal clear that it becomes an imitation of reality.  You think of the moment and you remember all of it and experience it again—the constant backbeat of the typewriters and TV monitors, the smell of coffee and cigarettes, the way all heads turned to the assignment editor’s sudden urgent shouting of the news, the way the overhead florescent lights glared off his solid yellow shirt with a fly-away collar, the fold of the paper in the large hand he was waving over his head.

But most of all I remember the two emotions that flickered across his face, seeming to dance together or battle for dominance.  Should I mourn this unspeakably horrible tragedy?  Or should I joyfully exult in my team’s impending victory? 

And that’s where I was the night John Lennon died.

If the federal debt is such an important problem, why are we extending temporary tax cuts to the wealthy?

Most of what we hear out of Washington, from Republicans especially but also from Democrats, is that the federal deficit has grown so much that if we don’t address it now, our economy will enter rapid and permanent decline.  And yet our elected officials are negotiating to extend temporary tax cuts, not just to the middle and working classes who at least would pump most of the money from an extended tax cut into the ailing economy, but for the wealthy, who judging from the past, will invest it in ways that do not create additional wealth, e.g., into hedge funds, the stock of existing companies and art created by deceased artists.  To get this new tax cut, Republicans and some Democrats are holding hostage an extension of unemployment benefits, a necessary expense in a moral nation that wants to keep large numbers of its citizens from losing their homes.

The biggest farce of all is the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which officially announced its plan to “lower the deficit” last Wednesday.  Funny, the commission calls its report, “The Moment of Truth,” when in fact it is full of distortions in its overall strategy and the rationale for its specific proposals, especially regarding our only financially strong program, Social Security.

Most commentators and politicians are giving the co-commishes a large “attaboy” or three for taking on the onerous task of addressing the deficit, but then wring their hands that Congress won’t pass the plan because of political gridlock and short-term thinking and isn’t that too bad. 

For example, in the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times, Matt Bai postulates that the report will go nowhere and then asks why Americans who long ago sacrificed to win wars don’t want to sacrifice to eradicate the deficit.  His answer: “What makes this case for sacrifice so much harder to embrace, perhaps, is that it goes to our national psyche, threatening our self-image as a land with limitless potential. While past generations have readily sacrificed for national greatness, debt reduction — at least in the gloomy way its advocates argue for it — feels like a call to sacrifice in the name of our national decline.”

Bai’s article explores this hypothesis with broad-stroke history and standard ideological assumptions about the free market and lifestyle expectations.  He proposes that the problem is merely that advocates of deficit cutting must repackage their proposals by focusing on the assumed positive outcomes.

But that dog won’t hunt, it won’t bark and it won’t even roll over to scratch its back against the carpet, because anyone who reads the plan will see its not-too-hidden agenda is not to address the deficit but rather to reduce taxes on the wealthy.

A brief look at the plan should be enough to convince most that the commission should change its name to “National Commission to Lower Taxes for the Wealthy.”  Throughout the document it calls for sacrifice, and yet it proposes to give a bonus to the wealthiest of Americans.  Why don’t rich folk have to tighten their rather large belts with everyone else?

In the latest Nation, Professor Leon Friedman of Hofstra Law School estimates that if the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s plan becomes law, the top income group will get a reduction of 12% off their taxes.  Friedman, by the way, proposes a one percent annual tax on the wealth of anyone with $5.0 million or more in assets, something they do in France.  That sounds like a reasonable way to reduce the deficit and invest in our infrastructure and economic future without hurting anyone, since $50,000 a year is not a lot of money if you have five million tucked away.

The difference in attitude between Wikileaks leader and a government leader or CEO? Absolutely nothing.

 Last June, The New Yorker ran a feature story about the founder and head honcho of Wikileaks, Julian Assange.   

In conversations, more than one person who doesn’t like what Wikileaks is doing has referred to that article, and in particular his quote about the possibility that his leaks hurt innocent people.  The quote is bolded in the following excerpt from the story:

Recently, he posted military documents that included the Social Security numbers of soldiers, and in the Bunker I asked him if WikiLeaks’ mission would have been compromised if he had redacted these small bits. He said that some leaks risked harming innocent people—“collateral damage, if you will”—but that he could not weigh the importance of every detail in every document. Perhaps the Social Security numbers would one day be important to researchers investigating wrongdoing, he said; by releasing the information he would allow judgment to occur in the open.

Let’s neglect the fact that the statement comes to us hearsay, not in quotes but from the reporter’s notes.  Let’s focus on the offense to polite sensibilities made by Assange’s willingness to create innocent victims as collateral damage in his war against government confidentiality.

Consider the following types of people who routinely sacrifice innocents:

  1. Do Presidents of the United States or leaders of any other countries care that much about innocent victims when they send soldiers into the neighborhoods of foreign cities?
  2. Do legislators care that much about innocent victims when they refuse to extend unemployment benefits or cut people from Medicaid roles?
  3. Do reporters care that much about innocents when they file stories that could hurt people, whether the information is truly news or based on unsubstantiated reports from Matt Drudge and other bottom-feeding online speculators?
  4. Do chief executive officers care that much about innocent victims when they lay off thousands of workers while giving millions to senior management?
  5. Do cost-cutting contractors who do substandard work or drug companies that hide studies care that much about innocent victims?

I venture that most people will agree with #1 on that list—that presidents sometimes have to go to war—and the last election tells us that many people are okay with #2.  The further down the list we go, the fewer people are going to agree that the creation of human collateral damage warrants the actions undertaken.

Where do Assange and Wikileaks stand?  I think Assange got it right: he is a kind of journalist, but only a kind, just as the duck-billed platypus is a kind of mammal, no matter that it lays eggs.

Journalists pretty much have to cover the release of documents, although they can do so with discretion by keeping the discussion on a general level.

Buts as a special subspecies of journalism, Assange and other leakers must pick and choose.  If the release of documents is justified because it shows the government committed crimes or lied in a major way, then Assange can justify his victims, at least to some extent.  But, as I stated in an OpEdge post earlier this week, if the documents show neither crime nor major lie, then they should not be released for at least 20 years.  The fact that innocent people suffer from the unnecessary release of confidential documents just increases the magnitude of the offense.

The latest Wikileaks leaks beg the question: when is leaking right and when is it wrong?

A few months back, I was very happy that Wikileaks leaked U.S. government documents, because the material demonstrated a pattern of misconduct and abuse in the conduct of current U.S. wars.  It was exhilarating to see yet more proof of the disastrously stupid strategy and illegal tactics the Bush II administration took in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In my mind, I equated these leaks to the Pentagon papers, which showed the American people how much the U.S. government was lying to them about the Viet Nam War. 

I don’t feel so good about the latest round of Wikileaks leaks of U.S. government documents.  In fact I was a little pissed-off at Wikileaks honcho Julian Assange for revealing confidential government documents.

It’s simple why my reaction differed so much this time around: in these latest Wikileaks leaks there was nothing or very little revealed that showed that the government of government officials engaged in illegal activities or lying to the American people.

So are the Wikileaks leaks right or wrong?  Or more aptly put, when is leaking confidential material appropriate?

Many people want to live in a world of sharply-defined right and wrong in which there are no gray areas.  Unfortunately, the real world is a messy place when it comes to ethics and morals.  As an example, let’s take a look at “Thou shalt not kill,” one of the 10 commandments, the accepted moral foundation for three religions.  Consider how society (not me) will react to these instances in killing:

  • A soldier kills an armed enemy soldier on the battlefield.
  • A woman is attacked with a knife and as she struggles, she accidentally plunges the knife into the heart of the assailant.
  • A man finds his wife in bed with another man.
  • A crazy guy with a gun shoots a bunch of people in a mall. 

This set of examples should convince readers that according to most civil societies the act of killing a human being can often be justified.  What matters is the context.

With that in mind, I developed a set of principles that I propose leakers and potential leakers of all types should use in determining whether to push the “enter” key or hold off:

  1. Leaking is not hacking.  Hacking into someone else’s computer system is always wrong if an individual or a private organization does it, and almost always wrong when a government does it.
  2. If the leaked material demonstrates that a crime has been committed against either the law of the country or international law or that a government or organization has lied explicitly about policy or other important matters, then the leaker has a moral responsibility to leak the documents as soon as possible.
  3. If the leaked material does not show illegal activity or a pattern of lying (not a little yarn told at a cocktail party), then the leaker should wait at least 20 years to release the material.  

We should rightfully exempt the news media from these prescriptions.  Once the news media has the material, they have to report it, that is, if it’s real news.