US Intelligence and the Press | Charles Duelfer

US Intelligence and the Press

Yesterday, George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government hosted an interesting discussion moderated by Michael Morell and four prominent Washington journalists regarding coverage of intelligence by journalists.  The journalists were Andrea Mitchell, long-time NBC correspondent who has covered everything in the last forty years; David Ignatius who has a similar depth of experience with the Washington Post; Peter Finn another long time journalist at the Post and currently their national security editor; and finally, Suzanne Kelly, formerly with CNN who the founder of the specialized national security web publication “Cipher Brief”.

There was discussion of the usual tension between government secrecy and first amendment freedoms specially blessed on the press.

Then, keying on the issue now prominent from the Julian Assange case, Morell politely asked the key question facing the press today:  Who is a journalist (and implicitly receives the special protections of the first amendment)?  The panel largely dodged the question.  Peter Finn came closest to candor by saying that it was an open issue, but one thing for sure was he did not want the government to define who was a journalist.  Then quickly turned to something else.

This is a critical question.  The journalists on the panel would be hard to dispute as real journalists.  They have lived by the standard ethics and principles of old school journalism.  But who defines a journalist?  Today you can “self-identify” as many things.  Pick up a paint brush, put on a beret, and presto, you’re an artist!  And with that you get artistic license!

Journalism similarly lacks formal certification criteria.  Get a lap-top, write a blog and you’re a journalist.  Or, use a cell phone and  create a You Tube product.  All the editorial standards and editorial oversight that the experienced journalists on the panel yesterday referenced are out the window.

Old time journalists are trying, with justification, to preserve their independence and first amendment rights, but the hoards of others who have no loyalty to ancient journalistic ideals of fact-checking, sourcing, etc. swarming the new media.  Perhaps the Post, Times, and NBC  do strive to retain old standards rather than just generate clicks as the seasoned news veterans described at the panel yesterday.  But that certainly doesn’t look like the future to me.

There is an inevitable crash concerning who qualifies as a journalist.  If the media does not establish criteria that are sustainable in court, then it may well be that government does need to step in.  This an issue that cannot be dodged.  “Journalists” are going way beyond reporting facts and are now actively seeking to shape outcomes–not just for their own interests but for foreign interests.  There is a crisis in journalism–it would be interesting to see more reporting on it.

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2 Responses to US Intelligence and the Press

  1. Bill D says:

    It does seem that the internet has opened up a new era for journalism –and it has– but leaving aside how easy it is to come upon massive troves of classified data and the potential for an easy worldwide audience, I would say the internet essentially raises no new issues to journalism that weren’t raised with the advent of the printing press. It has always been about credibility.

    What’s emerged over the last century has been the gradual concentration of ownership of media outlets, and we’ve become accustomed to a handful of major networks and publications as being the disseminators of news. But think about that stereotypical scene of a black-and-white movie set in Manhattan in the 1920s of a newspaper boy selling papers on the sidewalk or from a news stand — back then there was a newspaper for the Communists (and that’s oversimplifying: there were Trotskyite newspapers, Marxist newspapers, etc), a newspaper for every religious denomination, a newspaper for the feminists, a newspaper for immigrants from Italy about the goings-on back home, from Germany, etc, etc. It’s actually the mass ownership and concentration of news outlets that’s new; the internet is actually a way to circumnavigate this market dominance and to “re-democratize” the news as it was in the past.

    And journalism faces the same issues today as back then (as it always will in a free press environment): does the journalist have ulterior motives or an agenda? Is the article actually propaganda? Is the journalist being paid by a foreign government or a company for disguised advertising? And so on.

    Journalism must remain like your artist example: otherwise you risk stifling ideas or information. In a democracy we must have a free flow and exchange/debate of ideas so the best can rise to the top and be voted on. Generally isn’t it true that more information for voters means the potential for a better democracy? (and the flip side of that coin is, as a society we should enable voters to have good critical thinking skills)

    That’s not to say the DOJ can’t file an injunction to halt publication — they can. But SCOTUS recognizes the importance of the press to the extent that in one case from 1938 (Lovell v. City of Griffin) the chief justice defined the press as, “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.” That decision has even been used to say that violence in video games cannot be censored because that would be government infringement on free speech.

    I’ll look up the panel discussion you mentioned — sounds interesting. I’d recommend a related discussion on this topic you’re raising between Glenn Greenwald and Megan McArdle (titled “John Yoo’s Haircut”). They specifically debate the point you raise about who is a journalist.

  2. Charles Duelfer says:

    This is really thoughtful…sorry took so long to read it. Still it seems just in terms of numbers there is a difference today in that any individual, with zero peer review, can self-identify as a journalist and accrue the special protections/rights that are called out fro “the Press”. If you have special rights as a journalist, it does seem logical to ask what distinguishes a journalist from everyone else or maybe you can just assert that. However, the freedom to self-identify can be impractical. I have an acquaintance who moved to a town in Colorado that prohibits certain dogs like pit bulls. This person had a pet that was (whilst living in Virginia) identified as a pit bull. By all accounts, very friendly. Well it seems this dog (all agreed it was still a dog) upon arriving in Colorado, self-identified as a Labrador retriever on the dog registration forms. Not sure this is directly relevant…but sort of amusing.

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