On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite declared during a television broadcast that the Vietnam war was not worth it. The effect of that statement on the country was unmistakable. People trusted his judgment, and had no reason to think he would say anything other than the truth. If he was a national father figure, he was also a national conscience. On March 31, thirty-two days after Cronkite rejected the president’s leadership as commander in chief, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for reelection: an astonishing defeat for a corrupt and capable politician.
Could anything like that happen nearly half a century later? Our media, and their audience, are more fragmented today. We do not, and will not again, have a single figure with Cronkite’s influence. Nevertheless, imagine if The New York Times questioned the government’s version of what happened on 9/11. Imagine if Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post had treated the Kennedy assassination as they treated Watergate. Would we even have terms like truther and conspiracy nut floating around?
No, general opinion in that case would align itself with respectable sources like these. Then public opinion, divided as it can be, would regard individuals who believe government’s official reports as ignorant folks who ought to check their brains before they become a threat. Then we would have to find labels for those odd people who strangely find government reports trustworthy, for they would be clearly deficient thinkers who do not understand how to evaluate evidence.
The difference in 1968 is that Walter Cronkite looked at the evidence, and he had integrity. More than that, people knew he was honest. You cannot say that about today’s media. They want to stay on government’s good side, even though it does not have one.
Why do people in the media, so long after Cronkite’s era, seem so willing to report the government’s line? What leverage does the government have over them? Or does the explanation have little to do with overt leverage? Several explanations for apparent media compliance come to mind:
- Inherent limitations. Reporters must produce a lot of copy with few resources, they work under deadline, and they like to tip back a beer with their colleagues now and then. To deal with these pressures and limits, work with public information lying close by.
- Corporatism. The standard leftist view is that newspapers are owned by big corporations, big corporations are interested in big profits, and if you want to make a profit in this world, you need a friendly relationship with the government.
- Inside information. Reporters obtain a lot of what seems like inside information from their sources in government. They don’t want their flow of information to dry up if they publish stories critical of the institutions and sources that sustain them.
- Patriotic sentiments and customs. Reporters, like people in their audience, often act from a sense of patriotism. Therefore they don’t criticize their country in public, especially during wartime.
- Special relationships. Reporters might have a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency or other propaganda arm that obligates them to frame their reports on U. S. government activities in a certain way.
- Servility. Reporters are impressed by people with power, and they want to suck up to people who have it.
- Careerism. Journalists want to advance in their professions. The best way to do that is break big stories and be seen with the in crowd. The implications are obvious.
- Fear of getting scooped. If you do not get the story first, someone else will. If someone else gets it first, you’ll be seen as a loser. To be a winner, associate with other people who are winners.
Except for the first, all of these possibilities speak to the sociology of political information in a culture where the state is over-powerful, and therefore receives more attention and deference than it deserves. If key media outlets or individuals are in the government’s pocket, or align themselves too closely with the state, it should not be hard to find evidence of that. The problem is, the outlets in the best position to find and publicize that evidence would never do it. Moreover, alternative media outlets most likely to report such evidence, if it exists, are not in a great position to find it, let alone report it.
One reason for thinking along these lines is Operation Mockingbird, a disturbing government operation of the 1950s and 1960s. When you learn the Washington Post and managing editor Ben Bradlee had a tight relationship with the CIA, you think, “Good God, is that what we have for the Fourth Branch of government? These supposed watchdogs actually work as cat’s paws for the state?” When you learn that the newspaper of record for the nation’s capital is nothing but a state organ, that gives you pause. No matter how cynical you are, you find you have not been cynical enough. No matter how disillusioned you become, the truth still finds a few more ideals to destroy.
The aptly named Operation Mockingbird was an effort to keep the United States press on government’s side during the Cold War. Interestingly, not one news outlet, columnist or reporter has ever admitted to working with the CIA or other agency, nor have they apologized for it. Not one editor has acknowledged this kind of professional corruption. Without that acknowledgement, not one news organization has ever indicated that such a corrupt relationship has ended.
Lobby of CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia
More and more, propaganda displays itself as an explicit part of our national life. We know it exists, but how can we determine where it originates? To start with, the state does not want you to know where it originates. As citizens who need to know about government’s activities, we need access – and insight – to make judgments about how our news forms. In the current abundance of multi-platform media, we can only make judgments about the content in front of us. We can also compare that content with what we remember. If people who bring us that content have a relationship with government we should know about, let them tell us about it. In this case, people who create news in collaboration with the state know how to keep secrets almost as well as their masters.
Consider a recent example of tacit compliance in the media. Reflect on its implications for public reporting about 9/11, Kennedy’s murder, the Iraq war, and other crimes. Recall the way The New York Timesreported on Bradley Manning: his act of resistance, his imprisonment, and his trial. Wikileaks data from Manning’s computer furnished the Times with a deep well of true information about U. S. activities abroad. The Times collaborated with Wikileaks, used its documents freely, and improved its reporting as a consequence. Then the government brought its weighty hammer down on Wikileaks, shut off its funding, maneuvered its leader Julian Assange into exile, and – with the United Kingdom’s help – essentially turned a legitimate international enterprise into an outlaw organization.
As the feds undertook their plan to crush Wikileaks, the Times’ articles on Bradley Manning became markedly unsympathetic. After Wikileaks was out of the picture, the Times ignored Manning’s case altogether. Not only did the Times show no gratitude to Manning, it participated in his destruction as he disappeared into solitary confinement. If you wanted to find coverage of his trial, you had to read elsewhere. For the most part, editors at the Times ignored him and his cause.
What leverage could the government have used with the Times to induce such a noticeable and public betrayal? Does anyone doubt that if the government had not locked Manning away in a tiny cell twenty-three hours a day – had not humiliated him and treated him as a dangerous traitor – the Times would have treated him as anything but an honorable and even heroic revealer of government crimes in the middle of a horrific war founded on lies? Government can act this way only because Manning and other courageous whistleblowers have found no defenders at the Times, or at any other major news organization for that matter.
Bradley Manning’s act of civil resistance is at least as significant as Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, as Ellsberg himself testifies. After decades of giving Ellsberg the honor he deserves, the Times now treats both Manning and Ellsberg as if they did not exist. Apparently, government has created just the right atmosphere of caution, fear, and toadyism at places like the Times.
To read more about how some journalists have behaved during the last decade and more of crisis and calamity, read articles online by Glenn Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden reveal crimes committed at the National Security Agency. Greenwald’s criticism of his colleagues is courageous and true. He does not forgive them their compliance or their sins, and he is equally hard on their government handlers. Because the relationship between press and power has become so close, so corrupt and so mutually dependent, we have to seek truthful reporting somewhere else. We won’t find independent, accurate information where dishonesty and servility have taken root.
A single principle of democratic government underlies this analysis of media compliance. Without openness about government’s activities, citizens who own government cannot control its activities. Without independent media, openness about government’s activities cannot exist. That is why democratic government depends on unencumbered, truthful information.
If the state lies and schemes and violates the law openly, what does it do in secret? Plenty, it turns out. Power generates a lot of self-sustaining energy. People caught up in that power, or who believe in its beneficial effects, tend not to be skeptical about it. People detached from it, or who believe in its harmful effects, tend not to give government benefit of the doubt on anything. They expect the worst. They observe what government does in plain sight, and begin to ask questions about things we cannot see.
These two views about government do not commingle readily. They incorporate drastically different conceptions of citizenship. At a certain point, they become irreconcilable, especially if key sources of information collaborate with the state.