The collective self-censorship over a US drone base in Saudi Arabia is but the latest act of government-subservient 'journalism'
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 February 2013 09.10 EST
The US media, over the last decade (at least), has repeatedly acted to conceal newsworthy information it obtains about the actions of the US government. In each instance, the self-proclaimed adversarial press corps conceals these facts at the behest of the US government, based on patently absurd claims that reporting them will harm US national security. In each instance, what this media concealment actually accomplishes is enabling the dissemination of significant government falsehoods without challenge, and permitting the continuation of government deceit and even illegality.
One of the most notorious examples was in mid-2004 when the New York Times discovered - thanks to a courageous DOJ whistleblower - that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on the electronic communications of Americans without the warrants required by the criminal law. But after George Bush summoned to the Oval Office the paper's publisher (Arthur Sulzberger) and executive editor (Bill Keller) and directed them to conceal what they had learned, the NYT complied by sitting on the story for a-year-and-a-half: until late December, 2005, long after Bush had been safely re-elected. The "national security" excuse for this concealment was patently ludicrous from the start: everyone knew the US government was trying to eavesdrop on al-Qaida communications and this story merely revealed that they were doing so illegally (without warrants) rather than legally (with warrants). By concealing the story for so long, the New York Times helped the Bush administration illegally spy on Americans.
The Washington Post's Dana Priest, in a superb act of journalism,reported in 2005 that the CIA was maintaining a network of secret "black sites" where detainees were interrogated and abused beyond the monitoring scrutiny of human rights groups and even Congress. But the Post purposely concealed the identity of the countries serving as the locale of those secret prisons in order to enable the plainly illegal program to continue without bothersome disruptions: "the Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior US officials."
In 2011, the New York Times along with numerous other US media outlets learned that the American arrested in Pakistan for having shot and killed two Pakistanis, Raymond Davis, was not - as President Obama falsely claimed - "our diplomat", but was a CIA agent and former Blackwater contractor. Not only did the NYT conceal this fact, but itrepeatedly and uncritically printed claims from Obama and other officials about Davis' status which it knew to be false. It was only once the Guardian published the facts about Davis - that he was a CIA agent - did the Times tell the truth to its readers, admitting that the disclosure "pulled back the curtain on a web of covert American operations inside Pakistan,part of a secret war run by the CIA".
The NYT, as usual, justified its concealment of this obviously newsworthy information as coming "at the request of the Obama administration, which argued that disclosure of his specific job would put his life at risk". But as the Guardian's Deputy Editor Ian Katz noted, "Davis [was] already widely assumed in Pakistan to have links to US intelligence" and "disclosing his CIA role would [therefore not] expose him to increased risk".
And now, yet again, the US media has been caught working together to conceal obviously newsworthy government secrets. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that two years ago, the Obama administration established a base in Saudi Arabia from which it deploys drones to kill numerous people in Yemen. including US citizen Anwar Awlaki and, two weeks, later his 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman. The US base was built after the US launched a December, 2009 cruise missile/cluster-bomb attack that slaughtered dozens of Yemeni women and children.
But the Post admitted that it - along with multiple other US media outlets - had long known about the Saudi Arabia drone base but had acted in unison to conceal it from the US public:
"The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the specific location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network's most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.
The "other news organization" which the Post references is the New York Times. The NYT - in a very good article yesterday on the role played by CIA nominee John Brennan in US drones strikes in Yemen - reported that Brennan "work[ed] closely with neighboring Saudi Arabia to gain approval for a secret CIA drone base there that is used for American strikes". As the paper's Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, explained, the NYT was one of the papers which "had withheld the location of that base at the request of the CIA", but had decided now to report it. That was why the Post did so.
The existence of this drone base in Saudi Arabia is significantly newsworthy in multiple ways. The US drone program is drenched with extreme secrecy. The assassination of Awlaki is one of the most radical acts the US government has undertaken in the last decade at least. The intense cooperation between the US and the incomparably despotic Saudi regime is of vital significance. As Sullivan, the NYT's Public Editor, put it in defending the NYT's disclosure (and implicitly questioning the prior media conspiracy of silence):
"Given the government's undue secrecy about the drone program, which it has never officially acknowledged the existence of, and that program's great significance to America's foreign policy, its national security, and its influence on the tumultuous Middle East, The Times ought to be reporting as much and as aggressively as possible on it."
As usual, the excuses for concealing this information are frivolous. Indeed, as the Guardian's Roy Greenslade noted, "the location of several drone bases was published as long ago as September last year on at least one news website, as this item on the North America Inter Press Service illustrates." Gawker's Adrian Chen documents numerous other instances where the base had been publicly disclosed and writes:
"In the case of the Saudi drone base, the Times and the Post weren't protecting a state secret: They were helping the CIA bury an inconvenient story. . . . The fact that the drone base was already reported renders the rationale behind the months-long blackout a farce."
In an article on the controversy over this self-censorship, the Guardian this morning quotes Dr Jack Lule, a professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University:
"The decision not to publish is a shameful one. The national security standard has to be very high, perhaps imminent danger. The fact that we are even having a conversation about whether it was a national security issue should have sent alarm bells off to the editors. I think the real reason was that the administration did not want to embarrass the Saudis – and for the US news media to be complicit in that is craven."
The same dynamic drives most of these acts of US media self-censorship. It has nothing to do with legitimate claims of national security. Indeed, none of these facts - once they were finally reported - ultimately resulted in any harm. Instead, it has everything to do with obeying government dictates; shielding high-level government officials from embarrassing revelations; protecting even the most extreme government deceit and illegality; and keeping the domestic population of the US (their readers) ignorant of the vital acts in which their own government is engaged.
There are, of course, instances where newspapers can validly opt to conceal facts that they learn. That's when the harm that comes from disclosure plainly outweighs the public interest in learning of them (the classic case is when, in a war, a newspaper learns of imminent troop movements: there is no value in reporting that but ample harm from doing so). But none of these instances comes close to meeting that test. Instead, media outlets overwhelmingly abide by government dictates as to what they should conceal. As Greensdale wrote: "most often, they oblige governments by acceding to requests not to publish sensitive information that might jeopardise operations."
As all of these examples demonstrate, extreme levels of subservience to US government authority is embedded in the ethos of the establishment American media. They see themselves not as watchdogs over the state but as loyal agents of it.
Recall the extraordinary 2009 BBC debate over WikiLeaks in which former NYT executive editor Bill Keller proudly praised himself for concealing information the Obama administration told him to conceal, prompting this incredulous reply from the BBC host: "Just to be clear, Bill Keller, are you saying that you sort of go to the government in advance and say: 'What about this, that and the other, is it all right to do this and all right to do that,' and you get clearance, then?" Keller's admission also prompted this response from former British diplomat Carne Ross, who was also on the program: "It's extraordinary that the New York Times is clearing what it says about this with the US Government."
After the Guardian published the truth about Raymond Davis, former Bush DOJ laywer Jack Goldsmith, in 2011, defended the New York Times' concealment of it by hailing what he called "the patriotism of the American press". He quoted former Bush CIA and NSA chief Gen. Michael Hayden as saying that "American journalists display 'a willingness to work with us' . . . but with the foreign press 'it's very, very difficult'". Goldsmith said that while foreign media outlets will more readily report on secret US government acts (he named The Guardian, Al Jazeera and WikiLeaks), US national security journalists with whom he spoke justified their eagerness to cooperate with the US government by "expressly ascrib[ing] this attitude to 'patriotism' or 'jingoism' or to being American citizens or working for American publications."
That is the key truth. The entity that is designed to be, and endlessly praises itself for being, a check on US government power is, in fact, its most loyal servant. There are significant exceptions: Dana Priest did disclose the CIA black sites network over the agency's vehement objections, while the NYT is now suing the government to compel the release of classified documents relating to Obama's assassination program. But time and again, one finds the US media acting to help suppress the newsworthy secrets of the US government rather than report on them. Its collaborative "informal" agreement to hide the US drone base in Saudi Arabia is just the latest in a long line of such behavior.
Freedom of Press foundation
As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen perfectly described, the reason WikiLeaks and other forms of independent adversarial journalism emerged is because "the watchdog press died". It's exactly behavior like this - helping to conceal highly controversial US government programs out of allegiance to the government - that has necessitated the emergence of alternative forms of journalism devoted to real transparency.
Supporting real adversarial journalism like that is the impetus behind the formation of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, on whose board I sit and about which I wrote here. The actor John Cusack, who is also a board member and just made a large donation to the group, just published a great essay about why he is devoted to this cause and why the launch of the Foundation was so successful (raising over $200,000 for the four transparency and independent journalism groups named in the first round).
The Foundation just named its second group of beneficiaries devoted to adversarial journalism and transparency. You can read about them and - as I hope you will - donate to support them, here.
Brooklyn College update
I wrote several times in the last week about the growing censorship campaign aimed at Brooklyn College over an event some of its students organized and its Political Science department sponsored regarding Israel and the BDS movement. There is now very good news to report: namely, both Brooklyn College and academic freedom - as a result of serious public protest over the censorship efforts - have triumphed over the bullying campaign directed at the college.
The censorship campaign began to unravel when two City Council members who originally signed onto the letter threatening the College's funding renounced the letter and withdrew their support; one of them, Stephen Levin, began sending an apologetic email to constituents angry about his signing onto that letter. Then, the college's President issued a defiant and principled defense of academic freedom, and the school's Political Science Department chair did the same.
Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while emphasizing what a stalwart defender of Israel he is, delivered a steadfast defense of Brooklyn College's right to hold whatever events it wishes, and strongly condemned the threats to its funding. Said the Mayor:
"The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can't think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students."
Then, the political officials who signed the original letter demanding the withdrawal of the department's sponsorship of the event completely reversed course and backed down, trying to save face by pronouncing themselves satisfied with the school's stated willingness to host anti-BDS speakers in the future (something they were willing to do from the start).
This important and surprising victory demonstrates what principled leadership combined with public activism can achieve. It can defeat even the most monied and organized factions, as it did here. All of you who made yourselves heard should be proud of the role you played in this victory (I was on Democracy Now yesterday with one of the event speakers, Omar Barghouti, talking about this controversy; the transcript and video are here).