On the day HuffPost Hawaii launched, I had the chance to sit down briefly -- nine minutes, to be exact -- with Honolulu Civil Beat publisher and CEO Pierre Omidyar, Civil Beat editor Patti Epler and Huffington Post president and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington.
HuffPost Hawaii had gone live only hours before and was quickly amassing "likes" (and a few dings) for its titillating headlines like "The Best Nude Beaches in Hawaii" and garish right-hand column filled with busted and busty celebrities. But I didn't want to talk about twerking teens or top-10 lists of weird fruit. I was interested in what Omidyar, Huffington and Epler hoped HuffPost Hawaii might do to shine a light on Hawaii's often overlooked but massive role as a surveillance and intelligence outpost and headquarters for the U.S. Pacific Command.
Seated around a low coffee table, I launched straight into it. "What role do you think HuffPost Hawaii should have in covering the military in an age of endless confrontations?"
Epler began: "I really think HuffPost Hawaii needs to own coverage of the military and military issues here." She said that by virtue of being connected to global HuffPost sites and the constant flow of military personnel in and out of Hawaii, coverage of military issues should rank high for the site.
"I hope we will start writing much more aggressively about what's going on, not only the veterans coming back here and the issues they're facing, including post-traumatic stress, mental health and getting benefits, but also hearing what they have to say."
After multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the voices of military veterans can and should play an important role in the message HuffPost Hawaii brings to the world, Epler said.
"How do [veterans] feel about deployment? They've been one year, two years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now what -- back to Syria?" Epler asked. "They might have something really interesting to say about that."
Here The Huffington Post's namesake leaned forward and spoke: "We've done a long series on HuffPost in the mainland on returning vets and what they are dealing with. We just had a new series on suicides, which have reached dreadful proportions."
Given the colossal role of the military in Hawaii, and more than a dozen years of war and conflict, to hear directly from vets, Huffington said, and to "connect the dots with what's happening around the states and around the world can be a powerful way to get that message out."
Seated beside Huffington was Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and co-founder of Hawaii Civil Beat. Wearing a crisp, white aloha shirt with a bright orange cigar flower lei draped over his shoulders, Omidyar spoke clearly and deliberately about the need for the media to do a better job of encouraging thoughtful debate and a holistic view of problems.
"It's been a little disconcerting -- whenever the drum beats of war are beating, it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It creates a sort of war frenzy," Omidyar said. "I think it's a biological thing... something about the Third Metric can help us balance that a little bit. The male drive is once the drums start beating 'we want to get out there, we want to be violent.' As a society, of course that's really dangerous. I think the media -- parts of the media -- beat the drums and accentuate that."
Omidyar said he admired The Huffington Post coverage of military issues for trying to get us to take a step back and see what's going on and [ask] about the effectiveness of military action. "Is that really the only the answer and why is that the first thing we think of when the think of bad people in the world doing bad things?" He said it shouldn't be the "only tool in the toolbox."
Knowing I had little time to speak with HuffPost Hawaii's core team, I asked my second and final question:
"Could you address how the clamp-down on whistle blowers, NSA revelations and the persecution of Pvt. Manning and flight of Mr. Snowden has impacted your own media spheres?"
Huffington turned to me and said, "First of all, it directly contradicts the freedom of the press foundation on which this country has been built. What really has been troubling is that the president said he welcomed a debate after Snowden... but we have not really had a debate."
Americans were distracted by Snowden and he became the debate, she said. "Instead of actually debating the fundamental issues, we've been debating whether Snowden should go to Russia or somewhere else which is not at all the fundamental issue," Huffington said.
"I feel [it's] our responsibility to stay on the real issue," Huffington said.
Omidyar, who in recent months has gone from being an occasional tweeter to an almost daily Twitter critic of the NSA and other government surveillance, joined in: "I would add that the crux of the debate that needs to be had is how we balance our need for security with the importance of our liberty and civil liberties."
"The distractions, unfortunately, sort of official government propaganda, really is about distracting from that core issue because people in power with the best of intentions accumulate as much power as they can in order to keep us safe. They give their lives for that and they truly have the best intentions, I really believe, but they lose perspective on not what makes us safe, but what makes us human."
Omidyar continued: "Can we be truly free if we are surveilled all the time, if we have no privacy? I think that's a really important debate to have."
On whistle blowers, Omidyar said:
"The government assault on whistleblowers in general, I think really impacts the intent on the First Amendment. Without whistleblowers speaking to the press -- or any citizen -- you don't have to be a journalist, the First Amendment is there to protect any citizen, but without people on the inside able to speak their conscience and then have others amplify that voice, there's no way for us to check the power of these secret programs. So I think whistleblower protection needs to be expanded, personally."
"I also believe that the communication between journalists and their sources also needs to be privileged in some sense and should not be forcibly disclosable and so I think shield laws are also very important."
"Has this impacted Civil Beat?" I began to ask when I got a tap on the shoulder indicating that my time was up.
With that, the three thanked me and Huffington said she hoped I would make my flight back to Kauai. "Me too," I said bidding Omidyar, Epler and Huffington farewell before hightailing it outside to hail a taxi. Soon I was in a cab crawling through the crush of Honolulu traffic westbound on the H1 freeway in the direction of the Honolulu airport which is a short distance from Pacific Command headquarters and, a bit further down the road, the Hawaii Regional Security Operations Center, Hawaii's home of the NSA.
The comments of Mr. Omidyar, Ms. Epler and Ms. Huffington have been edited and condensed.
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