Suppose an inside scoop of official secrets gives some market players an unfair advantage—is that a good reason to muzzle the media?

People who are concerned about runaway secrecy and who cheer when the media break important stories in defiance of government edict may still find this particular affair worrisome.

Suppose the official secrets that are illegally leaked are published in an exclusive newsletter for a narrow sliver of the public that pays a lot of money for them. What’s more, the secrets don’t so much enlighten the broad public—which doesn’t see them—as they enable those lucky customers to cash in by making smarter investments than non-subscribers do.

Now, by and large, even though the government prosecutes leakers vigorously (especially in the national security realm) and tries its best to imprison them, it never goes after the outfits that publish the blown secrets. By custom—if not by statutory or constitutional entitlement, since this immunity has never been tested in court—the media get a pass.

But should the newsletter that brokered the illegal leak to its clients, who sought to profit from it financially, still benefit from the restraint that the U.S. government usually shows to news organizations that run classified material?

So to the case at hand, which involves Medley Global Advisors, owned by the London-based Financial Times. Medley describes itself as “the leading global provider of macro policy intelligence for the world’s top hedge funds, institutional investors, and asset managers. “

In October 2012 a Medley newsletter published delectable, secret information about forthcoming actions to be taken by a pivotal committee of the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank.

The Fed is notoriously protective of its deliberations, since they routinely move markets worldwide, and is mindful of the immense advantage that knowledge of coming decisions can give to those in the know.

In this instance, according to an account from Pro Publica, Medley reported that the Fed’s Open Markets Committee had decided in September to extend its stimulus program, and would buy $45 billion per month in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities for some months to come.

That was big news, and the day after Medley’s account came out the Fed, as scheduled, released minutes of the committee meeting, which confirmed the report. That caused bond prices to fall and yields to rise. Advance knowledge of what the minutes would say was, it’s safe to assume, extremely advantageous.

Fed officials launched an internal probe, and by last month the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a regulatory agency, had started an insider-trading investigation while federal prosecutors in Manhattan were conducting a Continue reading “Suppose an inside scoop of official secrets gives some market players an unfair advantage—is that a good reason to muzzle the media?”

Edward Snowden deserves a stronger defense than the media are offering

The news media’s silence while some of their boldest sources are prosecuted or jailed is something I’ve been protesting for some time, so naturally I was pleased when The New York Times, in an eloquent editorial on New Year’s Day, urged the White House to show leniency toward Edward Snowden, the former contract worker for the National Security Agency, whose leaks continue to expose the NSA’s monumental, intrusive and illegal monitoring of civilian communications here and abroad.

The Times recounted the broad impact of Snowden’s defiance, including widespread outrage, critical court rulings, internal investigations and even a grudging nod from the White House. President Obama nonetheless invited him to return from asylum in Russia to face whatever justice the administration is currently offering, the president apparently hoping that Snowden wasn’t paying attention when fellow whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, having shared similarly dirty laundry via Wikileaks, was manhandled and held in solitary for nearly a year and finally sentenced to 35 years by a military tribunal.

Who could turn that down?

The Times argued that Snowden deserves either clemency or some minimum-punishment plea bargain, and concluded: “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”

Now, The Times never said much on Manning’s behalf. Nor has it opined in favor of Manning’s helper, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who’s languishing in an ersatz house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

For his part Assange is ignored, when he’s not reviled, by the same news organizations he fed truthful and explosive information. The received wisdom among elite media, near as I can tell, is that he’s a weirdo and an egomaniac and therefore earned his current captivity, ensured by a months-long police siege outside the embassy in Knightsbridge that’s supposedly intended to get him to return to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, murky stuff with which he has never been charged.

The police response is grossly disproportionate and reflects far more serious concerns than a busted condom, but the media prefer to look the other way.

So amid this practice of source abandonment, The Times’ plea is welcome.

But in several regards, the pro-Snowden case is troubling. It doesn’t go nearly far enough toward ensuring a fair shake for whistle-blowers with vital stories to tell.

First, the idea that Snowden should get a break because his “disclosures have Continue reading “Edward Snowden deserves a stronger defense than the media are offering”

Maybe summoning the press before Parliament isn’t such a bad idea

Alan Rusbridger, editor of London’s Guardian, faced off with British legislators last week about his newspaper’s publishing secrets about official surveillance that were leaked by the fugitive U.S. intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden.

Press advocates weren’t pleased.

Carl Bernstein, the Watergate-era star who’s on the Mount Rushmore of 20th century media heroes, certainly wasn’t. In an open letter to Rusbridger, Bernstein objected to Parliament’s “hauling in journalists for questioning and trying to intimidate them,” and said the editor’s appearance before a House of Commons committee was “dangerously pernicious.”

Roy Greenslade, ex-editor of Britain’s Daily Mirror, wasn’t pleased either. “Why, I kept asking myself, was an editor being required to explain himself to MPs [Members of Parliament]?” Greenslade wrote. “What makes them think they have the right to do so?”

Me, I disagree. I was glad to hear Rusbridger answering questions. It’s not that I want politicians to bully the news media. And I don’t think journalists should be routinely summoned before legislators to explain their editorial choices.

Nor do I disagree with Carl Bernstein about the need to keep governmental secrecy, not newsroom policies, at the foreground of public debate, and to insist that it’s the duty of a free press to battle bureaucrats over control of information that has public significance.

But I was happy to see a reasonably honest confrontation between a brave and dedicated journalist and parliamentarians, especially when the interlocutors weren’t just showboating for cable news or social media, but seemed genuinely concerned that the journalists might have badly misunderstood the harm that publishing the Snowden materials might cause.

Like Rusbridger, I believe the legislators were wrong. But they asked pretty good questions. They wanted to know whether The Guardian and the organizations with which it cooperated—among them The Washington Post and New York Times—had handled the files with care, and they worried that the leaks might leak further even if the journalists didn’t mean to publish them.

And the lawmakers wanted to know how journalists decide which secrets should be disclosed, a question even press zealots like me agree is pivotal. Rusbridger responded about the skill and long experience of the reporters involved, and the steps they took to seek official input and withhold what might prove truly harmful.

Now, it’s important not to admire unduly the British approach to media controls, which can be heavy-handed and autocratic. But while U.S. political leaders pay lip service to the need for “a national conversation” about surveillance and state secrecy, their main response has been not to foster one, but to vilify and criminalize the whistleblowers like Snowden whose leaks put that conversation on the national agenda.

That’s hypocritical, in my view. But what about the position of our news media? Shouldn’t they be part of this supposed conversation? Apparently not. My guess is there’s not one U.S. journalist in a hundred who would suggest that the editor of The New York Times or Washington Post should submit to congressional questioning the way Rusbridger did.

But why not? Congress, as ridiculous as it can be, is still our supreme deliberative body. Our journalists, unlike Britain’s, operate within a strong tradition of constitutional and statutory protections—so it’s not as if they would face anything like the legislative perils The Guardian had to consider.

Moreover, what better place to weigh in and argue the case for a powerfully adversarial press that challenges dominant institutions and wrests from them the information—even when it’s classified—that the public needs to do its job, which is to run this country?

Continue reading “Maybe summoning the press before Parliament isn’t such a bad idea”

Media heroism turned on its head: The real Manning scandal

In media mythology, the years from the mid-‘60s to the mid-’70s were the classical age, a heroic time of moral clarity.

Mainstream journalism marinated in adversarialism. Little Southern newspapers infuriated their own readers by staring down segregation. Foreign correspondents forced upon an unwilling public the realities of a brutal war. Network news ignored official disdain and showed the bottomless suffering the war inflicted on the innocents it was supposed to save. With the Pentagon Papers, newspapers defied secrecy rules to expose government lies. With Watergate, reporters forced out a corrupt president.

True, that retelling is a bit of myth-spinning; the media never were quite that gutsy. But myths illuminate. They remind us of values and aspirations. What we’d like to think was true then reflects what we hope might still be true now.

And over the past decade or so, it’s as if that classical formula of defiance and struggle has been turned upside down. Instead of halting war, the news media helped lead the charge into battle, stoking jingoism and spreading half-truths. Instead of unmasking civilian suffering, the media have kept the thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan war dead off-screen, pandering to the idea that the only victims worth compassion wear U.S. uniforms.

Even Watergate is upended, with Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the scandal, now the target of scathing revisionism because of a trivial dustup with a thin-skinned White House.

And looming above those breathtaking role reversals is the media’s disgraceful abandonment of the boldest news source of his generation, Pvt. Bradley Manning, a soldier who in 2010 defied secrecy restrictions to feed the most influential media in the world with leaks they gratefully published, which exposed corruption and duplicity, identified torturers, energized the Arab spring, and embarrassed officialdom worldwide.

The ferocity of the Obama administration attack on Manning and on Wikileaks, the online Continue reading “Media heroism turned on its head: The real Manning scandal”

In defense of Wikileaks

Suddenly, foreign news is back. In the past week or so, the long lamented decline in smart, well-sourced, insightful and provocative coverage of international affairs has done a 180. Overnight, the media are brimming with stories about global politics:

Continue reading “In defense of Wikileaks”