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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