Drones and transparency

White House criticized for secrecy, PBS's NOVA for conflict

It’s no secret that journalists, especially those on the science beat, don’t think that President Obama has lived up his lofty promise to create an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” So it’s understandable that many of them were downright aghast when the commander-in-chief claimed last Thursday to have done just that.

Responding to a question from blogger Kira Davis about the unfulfilled pledge during a Google+ “hangout,” Obama said:

Well, actually, on a whole bunch of fronts, we’ve kept that promise. This is the most transparent administration in history, and I can document how that is the case—everything from every visitor who comes into the White House is now part of the public record. That is something we changed. Every law that we pass, every rule that we implement, we put online for everyone to see.

That drew a sharp rebuke from Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. Echoing comments that I made in 2011 about Obama’s adroit use of the Internet to create one-way flow of information, they argued that:

President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.

Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.

What was particularly galling about the hollow boast made last Thursday was that Obama was responding to a question that touched on one of the most opaque areas of his administration: the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, in the conflict zones of the Middle East and Asia. Following on the comment above, he said:

When it comes to how we conduct counterterrorism, there are legitimate questions there, and we should have that debate. And what I tried to do coming into the office was to create a legal and policy framework that respected our traditions and rule of law, but some of these programs are still classified, which meant that we might have shared them with the congressional intelligence office, but they’re not on the front of the papers.

Indeed, for the first two years of Obama’s administration, drones were able to avoid serious scrutiny in the media. That’s changed, but no thanks to the White House. According to an analysis of The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post published earlier this month by Harvard University, coverage of drone strikes nearly doubled during the Obama administration, from 326 articles in 2009 to 625 articles in 2012 (as of November).

The study, by Tara McKelvey, a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, goes into fascinating detail on the different ways that each outlet approached the story, but the kicker is this:

Few journalists considered the range of complexities of the issue during the early years of the Obama administration. They began to examine the issue in a more sophisticated manner only in the later years of Obama’s first term in office, a shift in coverage that was caused less by the passage of time than by two important events in the evolution of the drone program, the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in the fall of 2011, and a speech given by counterterrorism adviser John Brennan several months later in which he spoke about “moral questions” regarding the drone program — and coincided with an expansion of the program. These events caused a change in both the volume of coverage, which increased dramatically, and also in the tone and depth of coverage. After both of these events, journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media organizations began to write more analytical and investigative articles about the targeted-killing program, despite a reporting environment that was marked by secrecy and paranoia and by a crackdown on leaks.

David Carr wrote about the Harvard analysis in his February 10 column for the Times and highlighted some of the “remarkable” scoops achieved by his colleagues as well as reporters such as NBC News’s Michael Isikoff.

“Some 3,500 people have died in 420 strikes, and Congress has yet to hold a single public hearing on this issue,” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Carr. “It has happened in the dark because we have allowed it to, and the press has far and away been the lead actor in surfacing this issue.”

The press has had some transparency issues of its own, however. In late January, PBS’s NOVA program caught some flak when it aired an hour-long documentary, “Rise of the Drones,” which listed Lockheed Martin, a major defense contractor and drone manufacturer, as one its funders.

Firedoglake, a self-described “progressive news site and action organization,” charged that Lockheed’s support was a violation of PBS’s underwriting guidelines, which outline three tests to determine the acceptability of money:

  • Editorial Control Test: Has the underwriter exercised editorial control? Could it?
  • Perception Test: Might the public perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control?
  • Commercialism Test: Might the public conclude the program is on PBS principally because it promotes the underwriter’s prod­ucts, services or other business interests?

Firedoglake felt, quite reasonably, that Lockheed’s support for the documentary on drones failed the last two tests because the program covered some of the company’s technologies and business partners without acknowledging the connections. Moreover, the media watchdog organization FAIR pointed out, though the broadcast included Lockheed’s underwriting credit, it was missing on in the online version.

I contacted PBS last week to ask about the omission, and spokeswoman Jan McNamara provided the following statement:

While the sponsorship of NOVA by Lockheed Martin has now ended, given our commitment to transparency, PBS and WGBH [the producer of NOVA] have decided to add a clarification to the program’s Web site, in the streaming version of the episode and future broadcasts that will read as follows:

“‘Rise of the Drones’ is produced by WGBH, which maintains complete editorial control over all episodes of NOVA. Lockheed Martin was a minor funder of the NOVA series at the time this program was broadcast. Lockheed Martin produces the RQ-170 Sentinel drone technology mentioned in the program.”

NOVA’s producer denied the charge that it had broken any rules by taking Lockheed’s money, however. When PBS ombudsman Michael Getler followed up on the posts from Firedoglake and FAIR, he received the following statement:

WGBH fully adheres to PBS funding guidelines and takes our public trust responsibility very seriously. With regard to NOVA “Rise of the Drones,” Lockheed Martin’s sponsorship of NOVA is not a violation of the PBS underwriting guidelines. First and foremost, Lockheed Martin, like all WGBH/PBS program funders, had no editorial involvement in the program. Their credit on this episode was part of the ongoing recognition they have been receiving for their support of the NOVA series since January 2012. Their credit is included, along with other funders, for episodes in that period; their funding is not directed to or connected with any particular episode.

The difference between operational funding and program-specific funding is a technicality that would be lost most viewers, however, and Getler came down on the side of Firedoglake and FAIR, writing:

I think the Lockheed funding does present a perception and commercial test problem for PBS. My feeling is that this particular program would have been much better off without Lockheed support. That is easy for me, an outsider, to say when it comes to finding funders for programs.

The conflict-of-interest notwithstanding, Getler said that “Rise of the Drones,” was a “good and useful program.” And in a way, it was. As FAIR noted, the documentary had a “generally upbeat tone,” but it did acknowledge the controversies surrounding targeted killings and civilian deaths. Still, it fell short of the morally penetrating reporting that McKelvey highlighted in her analysis for Harvard.

With so much obscurity in the federal government, we need journalists who both fight for transparency and uphold it themselves.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,