Friday, February 07, 2014
Criminalizing journalism: a little bit of history repeating itself
For the people who think that we need not worry our pretty little heads about members of the press being labeled by high level government officials as traitors and criminals for doing their job, this piece by Amy Davidson in the New Yorker might be of interest:
A military lawyer had identified forty-one highly classified state secrets revealed in a single article. Senior officials were telling everyone who would listen that the journalists’ revelations had made the country less safe and put lives at risk—the reporters were simply traitors. The Russians might be behind it, and who knew what secrets the journalists would hand over if they weren’t immediately apprehended. Their publisher was already in Cuba, or maybe just headed there on a plane—anyway, he was a fugitive. A call was put in to a military attaché in Spain, to ask him to arrange to have another journalist stopped at the border; a soldier thought to be his source was arrested. The country’s leader mocked the media outlet involved: “You’ve got a publication that prints a half a million copies and systematically engages in treason—to make itself some money.” And not just a little treachery: “an abyss of treason.” The whole thing was “just plain ugly.”
It does sound awfully familiar doesn't it? But it's actually a blast from the past:
This was the Spiegel Affair, big news in 1962; Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was the national leader saying that the journalists, at what was then a relatively new German newsweekly, were a bunch of greedy traitors... The strands connecting the Spiegel and Snowden affairs are many and instructive—and are a reminder, above all, of why press freedom is worth fighting for.
That reference to being "embarrassed" is very important. It happens to be the only negative national security result of the Snowden revelations anyone can point to. And it's just as fatuous today as it was then.
When a government calls journalists traitors the questions should begin, not end. A lesson of the Spiegel Affair is that claims need to be subjected to some skepticism. The Spiegel publisher, Rudolf Augstein, was not anywhere near Cuba, though, as it was the autumn of the Cuban missile crisis, it would have been quite a moment. He was already in the custody of the German police; the official who’d said otherwise, no less than the Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, had been lying, left and right, about pretty much everything. Strauss was angry because a Spiegel cover story had embarrassed him—which was his definition of damaging national security. He’d made up the Cuban part to make it all sound like espionage. He wanted to make sure that Augstein’s reporter, Conrad Ahlers, was seized in Spain—an arrest that, a German official later said, was “somewhat outside of the law”—and to justify sending dozens of police officers to tear through the Spiegel offices late on a Friday night, seizing typewriters and screening calls. They also arrested the editor in chief, then searched his home, taking away drawings his children had made.
I guess we should be relieved that this hasn't gone that far in the US. It did, of course, happen in Britain when the government quite inanely insisted on destroying computer hard drives even though it knew very well that the documents had been distributed elsewhere. Here in the US we've managed to uphold the First Amendment so far, but the government has been taking some extremely concerning positions in recent years in that respect.
This isn't just about Mike McCarthy ... er, Mike Rogers shooting his mouth off about reporters "selling stolen property" (without indicating, by the way, whether he finds media outlets like NBC, The NY Times or the Washington Post to be potentially guilty of receiving stolen property.) It's important to keep in mind that this has been going on for some time.
The case of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, the government adviser, and James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, bears striking similarities to a sweeping leaks investigation disclosed last week in which federal investigators obtained records over two months of more than 20 telephone lines assigned to the Associated Press.
At a time when President Obama’s administration is under renewed scrutiny for an unprecedented number of leak investigations, the Kim case provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of one such probe.
Court documents in the Kim case reveal how deeply investigators explored the private communications of a working journalist — and raise the question of how often journalists have been investigated as closely as Rosen was in 2010. The case also raises new concerns among critics of government secrecy about the possible stifling effect of these investigations on a critical element of press freedom: the exchange of information between reporters and their sources.
“Search warrants like these have a severe chilling effect on the free flow of important information to the public,” said First Amendment lawyer Charles Tobin, who has represented the Associated Press, but not in the current case. “That’s a very dangerous road to go down.”
That was before Snowden's revelations, which made some people completely forget themselves and start talking like those crazy Germans from 1962. Conor Friedersdorff ascribes this to the fact that Glenn Greenwald is combative and gets under the skin of the political, journalistic and national security establishment and I think there is a grain of truth in that. As it is with so much else in our current political life, many people are unable to separate their personal feelings about certain individuals from the work they are doing. That's human, on a lot of levels, but as Friedersdorrf eloquently lays out, it's especially dangerous and self-defeating for journalists, of all people, to join in that sort of primitive and immature mode of understanding how the world works. (I might also point out that it's wholly beneath the president to even obliquely imply that this is all sensationalism as he frequently does ... history will find those comments and he will not look good for having made them.)
But I don't actually think that Glenn irritating the establishment is the main impetus for the attempted criminalization of journalism for the simple reason I discussed above: it was going on before Glenn became a household name. Indeed, this anti-First Amendment push has been something of a hallmark of this administration.
Today, Politico does a decent story on this subject as well, headlining it "the Snowden era of journalism" which I think is an apt way of putting it. It features the usual handwringing about the dangers of investigative journalism and in some cases the journalistic old guard sound remarkably like those German politicians. One cannot help but suspect that the real problem is that the new journalism is creating new gatekeepers, many of whom are not part of the Village and are not subject to the same incentives. But it makes clear, at least, that the old ways of doing this are evolving into something new and it's important that everyone stop the pearl clutching about what was and figure out how to deal with what is.
There are only two ways this is going to go: the US will either recognize that the government must deal with a new transparent era of much less secrecy and more accountability or we will accede to living in a much more repressive, authoritarian state. The convergence of technology, globalism and paranoia in this moment will only logically lead in one of those two directions. Journalism has a vital role to play in all this and so far, there's been enough courage and moxie among at least some of the media to step up to the challenge. With the glaring exception of some prominent celebrity reporters, McCarthyite congressmen and (especially) certain sinister members of the national security apparatus, there has been enough respect for the First Amendment to at least allow the debate to take place. This loose talk from the likes of Mike Rogers and James Clapper about criminalizing journalism is not a good sign. Let's hope it's just hot air.
Update: Speaking of courage and moxie:
Following several months of insinuation that he is a criminal or an accomplice to a crime, journalist Glenn Greenwald told Salon's Brian Beutler that he plans to return to the United States, essentially on a dare. "I’m going to go back to the U.S. for many reasons, but just the fucking principle is enough," Greenwald said. "On principle I’m going to force the issue."
The mere fact that this principle is even up for debate should make every thinking person in this country nervous.
And as I said earlier, it should make all the media institutions in this country nervous. If Greenwald is guilty of "selling stolen goods" it's very hard to see how they aren't guilty of receiving them. Does the government really want to go down this road? Do Americans?
digby 2/07/2014 10:00:00 AM