Unfortunately, since 9/11, the majority of the mainstream media have served, at best, as stenographers, and at worst, as propagandists—especially in the national security arena. Just as troubling, journalism’s overdependence and often-exclusive reliance on anonymous government officials delegitimizes stories and turns reporters into government mouthpieces. This led to the national press’ failure to scrutinize US intelligence on Iraq’s weapons capabilities, the predicate for starting a war. As a whistleblower attorney, there are fewer than 10 reporters in this country to whom I will take client stories.
This journalistic subservience dovetails with an unprecedented, one-sided crackdown on “unauthorized leaks,” which more often than not are whistleblower disclosures. Rather than the usual retaliation of demotion or termination, the Obama administration is prosecuting former public servants for revealing some of the biggest scandals of the Bush administration—torture and secret domestic surveillance—and is doing so under the draconian Espionage Act, a law meant to go after spies, not whistleblowers. Reporters have seemed mostly unconcerned that this chills speech and could dry up their sources. Over the past three years, I have warned in vain that President Obama’s war on whistleblowers is just as much a war on journalists, whose identities litter every single indictment. Most journalists refused to consider these possibilities until it became public that the government secretly subpoenaed Associated Press phone records and obtained a search warrant for Fox reporter James Rosen’s private emails—both in connection with “leak” cases.
I am heartened that the press, which has far greater institutional power than a single whistleblower, strenuously pushed back. But despite new, stricter guidelines from the Justice Department that supposedly shield reporters from being prosecuted for simply doing their jobs, Attorney General Eric Holder did not withdraw his subpoena of New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal a confidential source. This resulted in a disastrous appeals court ruling that eviscerates, in one judge’s words, the “freedom of the press [that] is one of our Constitution’s most important and salutary contributions to human history.”
I hope journalism finds its way back to its First-Amendment function of informing the people about the activities of their government and fostering open discussion and debate—a critical element of public oversight. Keeping the government’s secrets does not protect national security and our uniquely “American” way of life. A free, rigorous, questioning, and independent press is what is indispensable to the informed public debate that lies at the heart of a democracy.
Jesselyn Radack is national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that defends public and private whistleblowers.
Journalism is a way of thinking. It is a system for gathering and distributing information that rests on the faith that, as John Adams put it, facts are stubborn things. For journalism, authenticating facts and presenting them in a transparent, reliable, and coherent way is an end in itself. We report; society decides. What makes someone a journalist? Above all is a commitment to the integrity of facts, without fear or favor. If the outcome is more important to you than the facts, you are an advocate but not a journalist (you can be an advocacy journalist, or an editorial writer, by adhering to the facts while urging an outcome). In pursuit of the facts, journalists risk their lives in dangerous places and their careers in confrontations with the powerful. They do it because they believe their work is a service to society.
Michael Oreskes is senior managing editor of The Associated Press, and a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.
When done right, journalism deepens our understanding of the world and educates us as people and citizens. It tells stories of the epic and the everyday in a way that cultivates empathy and galvanizes us to action.
Chris Hughes is a co-founder of Facebook, and is editor in chief and publisher of The New Republic.
Once upon a time journalists were gatekeepers, controlling and often monopolizing access to news and newsmakers. The Internet and social media have now broken the walls in so many places. To be a journalist today, one must understand how much things have changed.