In recent weeks, the gleaming Digital Age has been flipped over, exposing a dank underbelly of post-9/11 secrecy and surveillance reminiscent of a mid-20th Century police state, and implicating not just government but Silicon Valley too in harvesting and misusing information.
I’m curious about where the news media fit into all this. After all, in our political culture the news media have responsibilities that go well beyond reporting the news.
They historically have played much broader civic roles in the realm of information—as advocate of expressive liberties, servant of the public’s need to be well informed, skeptic when the powerful use secrecy against accountability, protector of the rights of the powerless who don’t want information about themselves looted.
Are the media playing such lofty roles now? That depends. Sometimes they sound like First Amendment zealots:
In May, when the Associated Press learned the government had secretly seized records from more than 20 phone lines used by reporters, AP chief Gary Pruitt denounced the action as “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights… ”
That same month, when a Fox News reporter was targeted as a possible “co-conspirator” with a former source—an ex-State Department contractor charged with leaking government fears about North Korean nuclear plans—Fox boss Roger Ailes deplored “a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era…”
Chagrined, the White House dusted off its 2009 press shield bill, which would provide some cover for journalists to defy pressure to identify confidential sources, and indicated the time might be right to pass it.
In those cases, the lines seemed clear, with the press firmly on the side of ferreting out the news and publishing it, championing informational liberty.
But elsewhere little is clear. Whose side are the news media really on when it comes to demanding a reasonably unfettered flow of publicly significant information?
The absence of sustained coverage of the half-dozen felony prosecutions of news sources in leak cases remains vexing.
Thinly covered is the ongoing trial of Bradley Manning, already jailed more than three years for leaking thousands of classified documents. Little more than a media punchline is Julian Assange, who heads Wikileaks, the global anti-secrecy network that brokered Manning’s sensational leaks to the media. Assange has just entered his second year of de facto house arrest in London.
Both men served up accurate, newsworthy and, often, uniquely revealing information. The media they served repaid them by developing what has become a standard trope that pathologizes their motives and belittles the dangers they courted. Our press may have many of the attributes of a watchdog, but loyalty isn’t among them.
Now, Edward Snowden. He’s the 29-year-old ex-employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a civilian contractor of the National Security Agency, who earlier this month gave London’s Guardian and The Washington Post sensational secret information about the extent of NSA oversight of domestic telecommunications.
Under a program code-named Prism, Snowden disclosed, the NSA and FBI link to the central servers of nine major Internet companies, downloading extensive materials so that foreign targets can be tracked. After the Prism leak, an even more disturbing portrait is emerging of close coordination between Silicon Valley and the security apparatus. As a New York Times report put it, “both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans”—one for intelligence, the other for money.
No less important, Snowden’s leaks also indicated the NSA had been sweeping up data for seven years on domestic U.S. phone traffic, something previously assumed to have been outside the agency’s remit.
This is major stuff. Snowden is, as of this writing, jetting from one jurisdiction to the next, from Hong Kong to Moscow to somewhere else. In the meantime his maturity, judgment, patriotism, mental fitness, career accomplishments, and moral suitability have been questioned by the same media that carried his leaks. And coverage is just as likely to deplore the security lapses that allowed him to disclose the NSA surveillance programs as it is to condemn the sweeping surveillance itself.
This could turn out to be a historic opportunity squandered. Former NSA official Thomas Drake, who was charged with Espionage Act violations in a disastrous prosecution that eventually collapsed—he had disclosed agency mismanagement and cost overruns—says Snowden’s leaks are only the tip of the iceberg.
“Since the government unchained itself from the constitution after 9/11, it has been eating our democracy alive from the inside out. There’s no room in a democracy for this kind of secrecy: it’s anathema to our form of a constitutional republic…”
That, it seems to me, belongs high on the national agenda that the news media, as stewards of our informational health, should be clamoring for.