The New York Times‘ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a piece published over the weekend on the unprecedented attacks on her Times colleague James Risen. In the article, Sullivan notes that the Obama Administration’s attempts to destroy national security reporting have largely worked. Sources have been terrorized by the U.S. government and are unwilling to talk, leading to the government’s screw ups and misdeeds never reaching the public eye.
News sources “are terrified now,” said Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland journalism school and formerly the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “What bothers me the most is knowing that some of the really important stories in the recent past probably couldn’t be done now.”
She mentions, as a prime example, The Washington Post’s exposé of abuses at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. In a court document in the Risen case, Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter who revealed government malfeasance at the highest levels, wrote that his Watergate articles could not have been written if confidential sources had not believed they would be protected. “The public is in danger of learning only what the administration wants them to know,” Ms. Dalglish said.
Risen’s sources not only have been targeted, but he himself is now subject to a court order, thanks to the Obama DOJ, to reveal information on his sources or face prison.
“They just keep coming at me,” Mr. Risen, a Times reporter in Washington, told me by phone last week.
And this goes to the central point – previously there was an agreement between the government and the corporate press that although the government hated to admit its many screw ups and misdeeds, it would allow the publishers to shield themselves with the First Amendment while mostly confining its bitter vengeance to unprotected sources. In exchange, they received discretion on the timing and substance of reports. If an operation was planned for Tuesday a story would be held, if a secret program or the program’s sources and methods was actually worthy of being secret – as perceived by media editors and owners - it would not be disclosed. This was the old model of news reporting.
But the government broke that deal. After 9/11 the Bush Administration took a sledgehammer to press freedom and the Obama Administration has drone struck what was left. It’s over.
The war on whistleblowers and journalism has destroyed the old model and vindicated a newer, less deferential, news reporting model – the Wikileaks model. A model based on trusting the public and disregarding entirely any government pleas for state secrecy. In essence the absolutists have won, on both sides. The authoritarians inside government have destroyed press oversight and accountability and the anarchists on the outside have validated their anti-hierarchical reporting process as the only workable process.
Now information not only wants to be free, it must be free. No more asking permission or coordinating release times. No more concerns for actionable versus benign information. And no more entertaining concerns about people in harms way. The U.S. government has, in the short term, destroyed national security reporting. But in doing so has laid the seeds of its own destruction. They destroyed their most committed defenders and handed the mantle of leadership to their most committed enemies. That’s no way to fight a war, let alone an information war where the costs of bringing an empire to its knees are pocket change.