Much has been written recently about the latest abuses of power by the Bush administration. While these stories are important and necessary, there is a larger concern that seems to be getting less attention than it deserves.
The newsrooms of America are already run by corporations that have a vested interest in many of the people and institutions they cover, including other corporations whose advertising keeps their profits growing, and politicians whose legislating keeps their empires growing.
For a story to be cleared, it has to run the gamut of fact-checkers, editors, lawyers, and publishers. Now there is another checkpoint that must be cleared before a story gets out to the people. That checkpoint is the White House. The president recently summoned the editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times to pressure them not to release stories that were critical of the administration. Both papers published the stories anyway, though the Times waited for a year to do so.
In each case, the articles covered matters of grave importance to the public. The Post’s story was about CIA prisons that were secretly established in Eastern Europe to interrogate terror suspects with methods that would be considered unlawful torture were they to be used in the U.S. The Times reported on the National Security Agency’s illegal practice of wiretapping the phone conversations of American citizens without a warrant.
The fact that the stories were ultimately printed is irrelevant, even if the Times had not sat on it for a year. The problem is that the White House should not be another step in the editorial chain. The thought of the president clapping his imperial hands and demanding an audience with supposedly independent journalists is antithetical to the notion of a free press. The very act is expressly intimidating.
The president far over-reached the boundaries of his office and should have his imperial hands slapped. But this is, sadly, not unexpected from this administration. The president’s behavior was not very far removed from what might be expected of a leader that fabricated evidence in order to engage in America’s first war of aggression; that paid columnists to write articles praising it’s agenda; that planted biased stories in Iraqi newspapers; that produced fake video news releases that ran on commercial television without disclaimers. It’s getting to be a little difficult to blame the administration for being dishonest and immoral when we already know enough to expect that from them.
The real villains here are the editors of the Times and the Post. The media’s behavior in all of this was that of an obedient child that comes when daddy calls. They should never have attended those meetings. But once there, they should have promptly departed and reported what had taken place. [Update: Journalists Say ‘Times’ And ‘Post’ Should Have Disclosed Meeting with Bush]
If the media expects the American people to put any faith in what they produce, they have to start demonstrating some independence and integrity. They have to understand that their mission is to serve the people – not their advertisers; not their colleagues; and most certainly not the government. Acquiescing to this kind of government pressure produces a wave of suspicion that can grow into a tsunami. Were there other meetings that they still have not disclosed? Were there meetings with other news outlets that have not come forward? Were agreements made to withhold or alter reports that they are presently honoring? We don’t know. And we won’t know even if they tell us because, at this point, how can we believe them?
While the abuses detailed in the reporting above are serious, we must start to recognize that what is most serious is the lack of a trustworthy media. With a truly free and independent press, these kinds of abuses would be impossible to engage in. People need to start expressing outrage at the abuse in the media at least as strongly as they do toward political affairs. Honesty in media begets honesty in politics. It is, in fact, the only path to honest politics.
Thomas Jefferson said that he would rather have a free press and no government, than a government but no free press. This is a perfect demonstration of what he meant.