Since 9/11, and certainly long before, there’s been a dangerous tendency for many in the corporate media to be psychologically embedded with governments to report sympathetically on matters of war. It’s an issue I discuss in #LeftTurn.
There’s a great column by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian that highlights similar questions:
Over the past several weeks in the US, there has been a series of high-profile media scoops exposing numerous details about President Obama’s covert foreign policy and counterterrorism actions, stories appearing primarily in The New York Times. Americans, for the first time, have been told about Obama’s personal role in compiling a secret “kill list”, which determines who will be targeted for death in Pakistan and Yemen; his ordering of sophisticated cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities; and operational details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Each of these stories revealed information clearly in the public interest and sparked important debates. But the way in which they were reported – specifically, their overwhelming reliance on Obama’s own usually anonymous aides – raise longstanding and still troubling questions about the relationship between the establishment American media and the government over which it is supposed to serve as adversarial watchdog.
The Obama White House’s extreme fixation on secrecy is shaped by a bizarre paradox. One the one hand, the current administration has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers – government employees who leak classified information showing high-level official wrongdoing – than all previous administrations combined. Obama officials have also, as ACLU lawyers documented this week in the Guardian, resisted with unprecedented vigor any attempts to subject their conduct to judicial review or any form of public disclosure, by insisting to courts that these programs are so secretive that the US government cannot even confirm or deny their existence without damaging US national security.
But at the very same time that they invoke broad secrecy claims to shield their conduct from outside scrutiny, it is Obama officials themselves who have continuously and quite selectively leaked information about these same programs to the US media. Indeed, the high publicity-value New York Times scoops of the past two weeks about covert national security programs have come substantially from Obama aides themselves.
In sum, these anonymous leaks are classic political propaganda: devoted to glorifying the leader and his policies for political gain. Because the programs are shrouded in official secrecy, it is impossible for journalists to verify these selective disclosures. By design, the only means the public has to learn anything about what the president is doing is the partial, selective disclosures by Obama’s own aides – those who work for him and are devoted to his political triumph.
But that process is a recipe for government deceit and propaganda. This was precisely the dynamic that, in the run-up to the attack on Iraq, co-opted America’s largest media outlets as mindless purveyors of false government claims. The defining journalistic sin of Judith Miller, the New York Times’ disgraced WMD reporter, was that she masqueraded the unverified assertions of anonymous Bush officials as reported fact.As the Times’ editors put it in their 2004 mea culpa, assertions from anonymous sources were “insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged”.
…These reporters rely overwhelmingly on government sources. Their reporting is shaped almost exclusively by the claims of underlings who are loyal to the president. The journalists have no means of verifying the assertions they are passing on as fact. And worst of all, they grant anonymity to Obama’s aides who are doing little more than doing the president’s bidding and promoting his political interests.
It is pure “access journalism”: these reporters are given scoops in exchange for their wholly unjustified promise to allow government officials to propagandize the citizenry without accountability (that is, from behind the protective shield of anonymity). By necessity, their journalistic storytelling is shaped by the perspective of these official sources.