In recent weeks, the gleaming Digital Age has been flipped over, exposing a dank underbelly of post-9/11 secrecy and surveillance reminiscent of a mid-20th-century police state, implicating not just government but Silicon Valley, too, in wide-ranging use and misuse of information.
I’m curious about where the news media fit into all this. After all, our system has always assigned the news media expansive civic roles in the realm of information — as advocate of expressive liberties, servant of the public’s need to be well informed, skeptic when the powerful use secrecy against accountability, protector of the rights of the powerless who don’t want information about themselves looted.
Are the media playing such lofty roles now? That depends. Sometimes they sound like First Amendment zealots:
In May, when the Associated Press learned the government had secretly seized records from more than 20 phone lines used by reporters, AP chief Gary Pruitt denounced the action as “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights. ”
Also in May, when a Fox News reporter was targeted as a possible “co-conspirator” with a former source — an ex-State Department contractor charged with leaking government fears about North Korean nuclear plans — Fox boss Roger Ailes deplored “a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era.”
Chagrined, the White House dusted off its 2009 press shield bill, which would provide some cover for journalists to defy pressure to identify confidential sources, and indicated the time might be right to pass it.
There, the lines seemed clear, with the press firmly on the side of ferreting out the news and publishing it, championing informational liberty.
But elsewhere little is clear. Whose side are the news media really on when it comes to demanding a reasonably unfettered flow of publicly significant information?
The absence of sustained coverage of the half-dozen felony prosecutions of news sources in leak cases remains vexing.
Thinly covered is the ongoing trial of Bradley Manning, already jailed more than three years for leaking thousands of classified documents. Little more than a media punchline is Julian Assange, who heads Wikileaks, the global anti-secrecy network that brokered Manning’s sensational leaks to the media. Assange has just entered his second year of de facto house arrest in London.
Both men served up accurate, newsworthy and, often, uniquely revealing information. The media they served repaid them by developing what has become a standard trope that pathologizes their motives and belittles the dangers they courted. Our press may have many of the attributes of a watchdog, but loyalty isn’t among them.
Now, Edward Snowden. He’s the 29-year-old ex-employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a civilian contractor of the National Security Agency, who earlier this month gave London’s Guardian and The Washington Post sensational secret information about the extent of NSA oversight of domestic telecommunications.
Under a program code-named PRISM, Snowden disclosed, the NSA and FBI link to the central servers of nine major Internet companies, downloading extensive materials so that foreign targets can be tracked. After the PRISM leak, an even more disturbing portrait is emerging of close coordination between Silicon Valley and the security apparatus. As a New York Times report put it, “both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans” — one for intelligence, the other for money.