Despite the recent blockbuster leaks about spying on the phone records of millions of Americans, and President Obama’s stated willingness to discuss the issues they raise, a front-page New York Times article on Tuesday asserted that “legal and political obstacles” make a vigorous public debate about surveillance and civil liberties highly unlikely.
Scott Shane and Jonathan Weisman of the Times made a solid case that neither the executive nor legislative branches—and neither Democratic nor Republican leaders—show real interest in disclosing anything more about the programs. As for the president, they noted that his record on national security disclosures belies any commitment to transparency.
But the Times story disregarded another possible influence: The media itself.
And to some observers, that looked like capitulation: “For the paper of record to say that was sort of telegraphing that this whole thing is going to go away,” says Josh Meyer, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who helps direct the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
The Times’s omission has some historical context. It’s hardly been a secret among national security reporters and civil libertarians that the sort of intelligence activity we’re hearing about via the leaks was long part of the Bush-Cheney surveillance regime, and that the Obama administration picked up the ball and ran with it. The Washington press corps just no longer considered such activities newsworthy—at least in part for some of the same reasons as the politicians, including the profound fear of terrorism in the years after September 11, 2001.
At the same time, President Obama’s unprecedented war on leaks has made new sources of information even harder to come by. As Times executive editor Jill Abramson told the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors last year: “Several reporters who have covered national security in Washington for decades tell me that the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge.”
But that doesn’t mean we should be reconciled to the situation. If the extraordinary secrecy that has spread throughout our government since 9/11 is what makes it difficult to hold a public debate on an issue as central as government surveillance of its citizenry, then the media’s role should be to push back against that secrecy. And the media’s most powerful weapon is not editorials that few people read or appeals to sympathy that few people have.
Our most powerful weapon is reporters. Even in this day of fragmented audiences and decimated newsrooms, major news organizations still have the ability to spark a national conversation around a given issue, by putting experienced, tenacious beat reporters on the story.
So what’s needed is a new beat, to cover secrecy itself.
“Too often, the press adopts a passive sort of stance, waiting for others to define the agenda. But it is possible, within the norms of journalism, for reporters and editors to define a beat and run with it,” says Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, and writes the essential Secrecy News blog.
When it comes to aggressive reporting about secrecy, Aftergood says, one story could well lead to the next. “I think by creating more channels for information to flow, the information will start to flow. News has a sort of gravitational force, that when you do stories, people will come up to you and say: ‘Well, do you know about this?’ There’s a snowballing effect waiting to happen if someone, or a bunch of someones, will take the first few catalytic steps.”
David Sobel, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online rights, notes that secrecy comes up as an important issue in any number of beats, and in reaction to specific events, sometimes producing major headlines. But, he says, “I have long thought that transparency as a standalone issue has gotten short shrift. Independent of the specifics of any given issue, there is the overriding issue of informed democratic participation on the part of citizens,” Sobel says. “And if there’s not sufficient transparency, the public debate on any issue that arises within the government is going to be lacking.”
How would a secrecy beat work? For starters, editors would call in some dogged reporters and tell them to start writing about the subject full time, to file as often as possible, to raise key questions—and to write about those questions even if they don’t get answers.
“There needs to be much more reporting on the aspects of the national security apparatus that the government doesn’t want us to be talking about,” Meyer says.
“What people refuse to disclose” could be as interesting as what they do disclose, says Aftergood, who is a leading critic of overclassification.