Sunday, November 17, 2013
With Friends Like the News Media, Who Needs Enemies?
Media news outlets act as an invaluable source of information for people across the globe, that include topics ranging from sports and entertainment, to public health, general safety, up to domestic and international crises. More than just informing us, however, the media has an agenda to influence us to the extent that it can with regard to our opinions and beliefs regarding any matter under the sun. In this regard, the media plays a significant role in shaping our society and our values. And by doing this, it is able to capitalize on that which matters most to us, and thus it can serve its own interests. There is nothing particularly vulgar about this practice, as it is consistent with all capitalistic businesses and industries. However the question I present is, how much is too much? Is there a line that the media ought not cross to benefit itself at some greater expense to the public or to world order?
Within the U.S., the Bill of Rights in the Constitution guarantees and safeguards the freedom of speech and of the press. However, as transparent and straight-forward as these rights are written, they have been under meticulous dispute and controversy. The U.S. media is still restricted from broadcasting certain things that the government deems to be in conflict with domestic interests. The government imposes censure to limit broadcasting of a variety of issues. For example, you will not see fallen American soldiers in body bags during times of war on Fox News or on CNN. This is because such broadcasting would too-effectively be able to sway public opinion away from war and cause internal dissension, which could ultimately derail war efforts and put a stop to U.S. involvement. Of course, this can be consistent with an effort of the government to carry out U.S. actions or involvement which are crucial to our interests despite that the general public may not agree or understand. However, in cases such as the Iraq War, the government used the necessary rhetoric to facilitate U.S. actions, however the majority of all claims made by the administration were found to be intentionally false years later. Therefore, while there is contention that the government ought to reserve the ability to have some control of the types of information media can relay to the public, the system is imperfect. It can be abused and it can thus essentially cause greater harm to the nation than benefit. While the government has been ruled by the Supreme Court to have leverage over the freedom of the press in certain situations, the extent of that leverage is a gray area. And the answer to where the line ought to be drawn is doomed to be a conundrum.
Another example is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. It was conducted for 40 years under the auspices of the U.S. government to study the progression of syphilis in African American males. Survivors of the experiment were able to provide evidence of its existence, in addition to its unraveling and broadcasting by the media in the 1960s. Yet it wasn't until 1997, some 35 years after the experiment's termination, that the government formally accepted responsibility and apologized for the atrocity. Perhaps the government was up against a wall and had to acknowledge it. In the meantime however, media exposure about the event was minimal, presumably due to imposed censure. Then in 2008, individuals who were alleged survivors of U.S.-mandated testing of HIV on African Americans also emerged with some alleged evidence of that experimentation. In response, Secretary Hillary Clinton offered a short and shallow apology to the extent that African Americans were adversely impacted by any vague wrongdoing on the side of the U.S. government (never properly acknowledging the experiment's existence or validity of the specific claims). What is interesting about this event is that, it was aired by CNN in particular for less than 48 hours. Then, it disappeared and any mention of the event was wholly eliminated. The presumption is that this too, was censored to protect the government. If this is to be assumed as accurate, then it too would be consistent with the government seeking to limit the freedom of the press in order to preserve domestic interests and "keep the peace."
The examples above illustrate the need for media to be limited. They are directly in line with the priority to preserve national interests and minimize instability. However, the media has also been responsible for broadcasting certain events that threaten national security. Between 2012 and 2013, Edward Snowden worked for NSA contractors and collected confidential information regarding U.S. intelligence programs and capabilities. He later provided this information to U.S. and international news reporting agencies. His own action and involvement in violating laws and endangering U.S. national security is a separate issue. But the news agencies made a decision to broadcast the information, which serves as an example where media has acted in ways that are in contrast with U.S. national interests. Even the British and German news organizations who were given information, although they are not responsible to the U.S., made decisions that could affect their nations' greatest ally. And what did they have to gain from doing so? Mainly recognition and fame, by receiving credit for publishing their stories and driving up their revenues. Meanwhile the U.S.'s methods for gathering information and surveillance were exposed at the delight of our enemies. And even a British-run organization's practices, considered a partner to the U.S.'s NSA, were likewise revealed as public information.
Other such instances where the media threw caution to the wind with regards to U.S. national interests include the Pentagon Papers being published in 1971, and making the front page of New York Times magazine. The Pentagon Papers involved details of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This put the U.S. under great scrutiny at the international level for its involvement and practices, which carried the cost of future political leverage. Further, CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity was made public by a media columnist in 2003, undermining the legitimacy of the agency and potentially endangering the agent's life as well as the confidentiality of the information she was privileged to know. In both of these cases as well, the media benefited by bringing such information to light, while disregarding the greater implications of making such information public.
The story of Michael Hastings is worthy of mention in this regard. Hastings was a journalist who primarily covered U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his reporting identified NATO's International Security Assistance Force General Stanley McChrystal as being insubordinate to the U.S. administration. Hasting's report ultimately cost General McChrystal his job. Beyond that, Hastings was outspoken about the U.S. administration and its surveillance measures, even calling the administration's efforts to control the media's power as a "war on journalism." His later work involved sensitive material that he had yet to publicize, which led him to severe paranoia of FBI surveillance, and eventually to a bizarre car accident that cost him his life. While acting as an icon and patriot of the world of journalism, his interest in confidential government matters brought him a lot of attention from top government organizations and officials. While his intentions may have been noble, many believe his death was somehow manipulated by the government to prevent him from harming U.S. national security interests. Whether or not that is true, we will probably never know. But if it is true, then it would serve as a prime example where the media has crossed the line, and had to be stopped by any means necessary in order to secure a greater purpose. Of course, I would not advocate for such action. Yet the necessity for such action makes its own statement.
This is not to say that all of the media's involvement in making certain information public was in conflict with U.S. interests. Indeed, there have been instances where the media acted as a check to the practices of government which were ethically wrong while not serving any direct U.S. interests. The details of the Watergate Scandal serve as an example to this end. However, the media obviously cannot be left to judge which situations are worthy of public release and which they ought to keep hidden. It will seemingly act to serve its own interests, whether the U.S. suffers as a consequence or not. Therefore, it is not practical to identify where the fine line should lie that the media must not cross. In a constant battle, the government relentlessly works to curtail the media's ability to broadcast certain information while the media fights for its Constitutional rights to make public what it wants to. While we enjoy it as a means to understanding more about the world and our lives, the media can be a double agent that could endanger our way of life at the same time.