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 but savvy 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 theorist floating around?
We would not. Substantial opinion around the country would openly align itself with respectable sources like these. Instead of wondering what people might say if they don’t keep their mouths shut, skeptics might emerge from the weeds. Tables turned, people might not feel so comfortable about ridiculing critics who ask questions. People on both sides of these questions might respect the evidence more, and dishonest government officials less. We might even wonder about those odd people who find government reports trustworthy.
The difference in 1968 was that Walter Cronkite looked at the evidence, and evaluated it by his own lights. 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. Prestige still swirls around power. Today’s media want to be close to the purple, or as we would say now, close to the levers of power. What person in the mainstream media would not want to say at a dinner party, “I was talking to the president today, and…”?
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 Times reported 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, intimidation, and collaboration at media organizations like the Times.
To see how we reached this point during decades of servility and special relationships between power people and those who report or interpret the news, read No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald, a journalist himself, helped Edward Snowden reveal crimes committed at the National Security Agency. In his online articles, Greenwald courageously and correctly criticizes his colleagues in journalism. He does not forgive them their compliance or their cowardice, and he is equally hard on their government handlers. Because relationships between press and power have become so close, corrupt and mutually dependent, we must seek truthful reporting somewhere else. We won’t find independent, accurate information where dishonesty and an insider’s mentality have taken root.
A key principle of democratic government underlines these observations about media compliance. Without openness, integrity, and ready access to accurate information, citizens who oversee government cannot influence its activities or stop its crimes. Without independent media, government controls citizens. When authority flows downward from the powerful few to everyone else, you have an anti-democratic political structure. That is why democratic government depends on unencumbered, truthful information.
Under multiple cloaks of secrecy and dishonesty, the state protects itself. The cloaks only hide the worst of it. If the state lies and schemes and violates the law openly, what does it do in secret? Plenty, it turns out. Power generates excess, self-sustaining energy. People who seek that kind of power, or who believe in its beneficial effects, tend to be unskeptical about it. People detached from anti-democratic power, or who recognize its harmful effects, tend not to grant authorities benefit of the doubt for anything. They expect the worst. They observe what government does in plain sight, and begin to ask questions about things we cannot see. People who believe in the state’s ability to work for the benefit of all cannot see why skeptics denigrate government’s efforts at every turn.
These two views about government do not commingle readily. They incorporate drastically different conceptions of citizenship. At a certain point, these perspectives become irreconcilable, especially if key sources of information collaborate with the state. When that happens, no one trusts anyone. Gradually, media collaboration evolves into a loose form of state control, where media organizations realize their institutional norms no longer support independent journalism. When you observe the way journalists have treated questions surrounding 9/11, and compare that behavior to Walter Cronkite’s report on the Vietnam war in 1968, you do start to doubt whether large media organizations exercise any independence at all.