Tuesday, April 18, 2006

OKAY, SO CHECK IT OUT, BABY: What is the job of a journalist in a free society?

According to the Society of Professional Journalists:

... [P]ublic enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.

To these ends, journalists have the following obligations:

  • To "seek truth and report it" by showing "fairness, honesty, and courage in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information."
  • To "minimize harm" by "treat[ing] sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect."
  • To "act independently. ... Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know."
  • To "be accountable ... to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other."

I take it as a given -- and I trust that most people who value freedom and democracy would, too -- that journalists are essential to a free and democratic society, precisely because their obligation is to the public's right to know and not to the government's (or any other power's) right to keep secret.

In our country, we have a special award for journalists who have excelled in serving the public's right to know. It's called the Pulitzer Prize. This year, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won Pulitzers in the category of National Reporting for their articles exposing the Bush administration's secret warrantless domestic surveillance program.

Here is the Pulitzer Board on why Risen and Lichtblau were given the award:

Awarded to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times for their carefully sourced stories on secret domestic eavesdropping that stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty.

That's a pretty important debate to have in a free and democratic society, and the public certainly has a right to know that the president unilaterally authorized a government agency to spy on Americans' telephone and e-mail communications without a search warrant. When Risen and Lichtblau wrote that article, they were doing what journalists are supposed to do.

But there are actually Americans among us who speak and write loudly and proudly about the special obligation of the United States to spread freedom and democracy around the world who don't actually care too much for freedom and democracy at home.

Scott Johnson at Powerline is one of them. He calls the prize selection "the Pulitzer Prize for treason."

Following in the footsteps of the AP last year, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won the Pulitzer Prize today for their treasonous contribution to the undermining of the highly classified National Security Agency surveillance program of al Qaeda-related terrorists. As I argued in a column for the Standard, the Risen/Lichtblau reportage clearly violated relevant provisions of the Espionage Act -- a particularly serious crime insofar as it lends assistance to the enemy in a time of war.

Bill Bennett is another. He thinks that Risen and Lichtblau are criminals and should be imprisoned.

Glenn Greenwald reminds us that Bennett is the same guy who preached about the importance of press freedom when a few newspapers in the United States declined to print cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed that were offensive to Muslims.

Several weeks ago, The Washington Post published an Op-Ed jointly written by Bill Bennett and his neoconservative comrade Alan Dershowitz, in which Bennett -- of all people -- pretended to be an advocate of a free press by decrying the media's "capitulat[ion] to Islamists." Bennett was upset that only a handful of American newspapers had published the Mohammed cartoons, arguing that by failing to publish the cartoons, "the press has betrayed not only its duties but its responsibilities."

As I noted at the time and on several other occasions, Bush supporters like Bennett are the last people who ought to be parading around under the banner of a free press, given their lengthy and intensifying efforts to destroy investigative journalism in this country by criminalizing its defining functions and threatening reporters with imprisonment who expose dubious, or worse, conduct on the part of the Bush administration. That is a very real and disturbing trend which has received far less attention than it deserves -- particularly from, ironically and revealingly enough, the press itself.

In an Update, Glenn quotes part of Bennett's radio rant:

[Glenn writes], Speaking of Risen and Lichtblau (and Dana Priest), Bennett said that they:

...took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others, that they not release it - they not only released it, they publicized it -- they put it on the front page, and it damaged us, it hurt us.

How do we know it damaged us? Well, it revealed the existence of the surveillance program - so people are going to stop making calls - since they are now aware of this - they're going to adjust their behavior . . . .

Are they punished, are they in shame, are they embarrassed, are they arrested? No, they win pulitzer prizes - they win pulitzer prizes - I don't think what they did was worthy of an award - I think what they did was worthy of jail, and I think this investigation needs to go forward. . . . .

But these people who reveal our secrets, who hurt our war efforts . . . who hurt the efforts of the President's people . . . they shouldn't be given prizes and awards for this, they shouldn't be given prizes and awards for this, they should be looked into . . . the Espionage Act, investigation of these leaks, I'm telling you, I'm hot. . . .

They published this story "against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president." What journalists would dare defy the wishes of the president? And in America, no less. And now, The Terrorists know that we are trying to eavesdrop on them, because they never knew that before. And these reporters therefore belong in prison.

Take another look at how the Society of Professional Journalists defines the ethical responsibilities and obligations of a journalist. Do you see "...should ask the president's permission before publishing anything the president might not like, and should never, ever go against the wishes of the president when the president requests the journalist not to publish a story."? Do you see the central obligation of a journalist defined as "supporting the president's policies" or "not writing anything that would embarrass the president or cast doubt on his policies"?

No, you don't. What you see is "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know," and "Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable."

Why do Bill Bennett and Scott Johnson and so many others like them defend the president when he implements secret policies that directly affect the lives and welfare of Americans, and attack the free press for acting like a free press should act? Why do they use war as an excuse to nibble away at essential liberty?

Glenn writes:

It is difficult, and I think foolish, to ignore these ugly impulses which are always pulsating immediately beneath the veneer of so many Bush followers. These are not random, fringe commentators whose extremist views are being held up to make a point. Rather, these are among the most representative and, in Bennett's case, influential Bush followers who have been incessantly and indignantly calling for the imprisonment of journalists. And as the drumbeat for war against Iran grows more intense, so, too, will the perceived justification for these types of distinctly un-American measures. The more "times of war" we have, the less room we have for marginal liberties, such as the luxury of a free press.

I was struck by what Glenn seems to be suggesting here. Does the support for more and more limits on personal freedom come from the belief that giving up some freedom is necessary in times of war to protect public safety? Or do the calls for criminalizing press freedom and other civil liberties come from a deeply seated distrust of freedom itself -- and the "time of war" that never ends is the excuse needed to justify the removal of that freedom?

I can't know for sure that Glenn intended this suggestion. But it jumped out at me when I read that paragraph -- and even if it's solely my interpretation and not what Glenn had in mind when he wrote this, I think it's a very important question to ask ourselves, and to discuss.

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