In a recent Esquire column (“Dianne Feinstein Defines ‘Journalist,’” September 19), Charles Pierce recalled presidential historian George Reedy’s prediction years ago that so-called “shield laws,” which protect reporters against criminal prosecution for not revealing their sources, would involve de facto government licensing of the press. After all, the law would have to define who qualified as a “journalist” for purposes of such legal protection.
And guess what? US Senator Dianne Feinstein just bore him out. She “insisted on limiting the legal protection to ‘real reporters’ and not, she said, a 17-year-old with his own website. ‘I can’t support it if everyone who has a blog has a special privilege … or if Edward Snowden were to sit down and write this stuff, he would have a privilege. I’m not going to go there,’ she said. Feinstein introduced an amendment that defines a ‘covered journalist’ as someone who gathers and reports news for ‘an entity or service that disseminates news and information.’”
Well, all righty then. So if you’re not a “professional journalist” — someone who punches a time clock and gets a paycheck from an “entity” of some sort — you can go to prison for publishing leaks.
If you are a “professional journalist,” on the other hand, you’ll censor yourself — driven by the imperative of maintaining “access” to those in power. Of course it’s not really clear what this “access” is supposed to accomplish. Because the one sure-fire guaranteed way to lose access to those in power is to report on them in a less than flattering way.
I recall some of those “serious,” “professional” interviews the late Tim Russert used to do with the likes of Dick Cheney. Cheney would sit there and lie non-stop, and the most Russert would ever do was ask a mild-mannered clarifying question in followup to give Cheney a chance either to retract or affirm the statement. Never did he confront Cheney with anything from the factual record proving him to be a deliberate liar — let alone a quote of Cheney actually saying something he’d just denied ever having said.
So apparently the real point of access is access for its own sake — the prestige of sitting in a swivel chair on the same dais as Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry and actually getting to talk to them in the flesh. Or sitting in the same room with the other reporters in the White House press pool, busily taking dictation from the Press Secretary. Or being seen laughing at their jokes at the National Press Club dinner on C-SPAN.
A perfect example of how government uses the denial of “access” as a stick is the Department of Justice’s response to Brad Heath’s questions about whether the DOJ’s Office of Personal Responsibility had investigated newly declassified documents revealing the NSA’s systematic lies to the FISA court. We have answers, the Department said, but we won’t give them to you, because we don’t like your attitude. So we’ll wait till after you publish your story, and then give the answers to someone we like instead.
If the threat to withdraw access isn’t enough to rein in a young reporter who’s still got some fool idealistic notions in her head, the “entity” that employs her can be useful in another way. See, the publishers and owners, too, have “access” of a different kind. They belong to the same social class as the government and corporate barons their lowly employees in the newsroom report on. The owner of the newspaper that employs a muckraking reporter probably plays nine holes of golf every Sunday with the scumbag politician the reporter exposes the dirt on.
The late Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post — a serious journalistic “entity” if ever there was one — positively relished in such “access.” She once regaled a room full of CIA officials with the assurance that “there are some things the American people don’t need to know.”
The journalistic community’s attitude toward leakers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, tellingly, is strongly polarized between those who are responsible only to their readers and their peers — the new Internet journalists, especially — and those employed by the kinds of “entities” Dianne Feinstein is so understandably fond of.
Some years back Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky formulated a “Propaganda Model” of the corporate media that said, at least in regard to “national security” affairs, the “free” U.S. media performed in the same manner you’d expect from the official state media in a totalitarian country. They were probably understating their case.