The human tragedy of scores of thousands of immigrant kids from south of the border streaming into the US is distracting enough for most people not to notice how damned creepy it is that the press has been completely restricted from touring these overcrowded immigrant detention centers or actually asking these kids some questions firsthand. These heavy-handed hindrances to press freedom are a great opportunity for pointing out liberal amnesia, or for political points scoring, depending on your views. But they are also nothing new for the Obama administration, whose claim to any kind of "transparency" years ago became a sour joke.
Every now and then, a nauseatingly earnest liberal writes a version of this January Daily Beast piece which suggests that the United States is somehow "behind" Europe in terms of speech laws – meaning that the US manages to generally preserve the rights of unpleasant people to loudly proclaim their prejudices and biases without fear of legal prosecution. Euro-centric weenies think this is a black mark against the country, when it is arguably its greatest, and truest (as opposed to some of America’s rhetorical/imaginary virtues) freedom.
Certainly America’s free speech history is not as flawless as it would like to pretend, and as usual, Obama didn’t invent crushing the press. But for a once-alleged civil libertarian, Obama’s government has demonstrated a shocking indifference towards transparency, or even basic press freedoms.
Before we were all distracted by Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks, the outrage of 2013 was the Obama administration’s snooping through the phone records of Associate Press reporters. The weirdly-similarly named James Rosen and James Risen – the former a Fox News correspondent, the latter a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times – have been lately entangled with the Obama administration, who have the best plumbers since Nixon’s boys. Rosen was spied upon for his alleged involvement with a State Department leak on a story about North Korea. Risen – a dogged reporter on NSA and CIA wiretapping and spying – has been on the brink of prosecution for years because he refuses to reveal a CIA source.
This, not to mention talk of prosecuting Glenn Greenwald, the 35-year prison sentence for whistleblower Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden’s new life in Russia, and a newfound interest in using the Espionage Act, has made the Obama administration no friend to free speech or press.
And yet, the level of media support for Obama hasn’t declined like it should. Hell, the people who like him seem to like him still – or at least support his war on journalists. Some media have revolted, sure. The AP seemed a bit testy for a few weeks there once the DOJ spying on them came to light. On Wednesday, the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter representing 38 journalism organizations in which they asked Obama to encourage federal workers to talk to the press instead of blocking them at every turn. This is good. But it isn’t enough.
The idea that the US has an entirely lapdog press is a myth. But to call it a watchdog press would be too kind. Certainly the conservative media, from Breitbart to Fox News, seems to have endless supplies of vitriol for the president. But nine times out of ten, these critiques are partisan amnesia. George W. Bush was too long ago to recall clearly, but, dammit, one thing we know about Obama is that he is a dirty hippie-peacenik! The explicitly liberal outlets like Think Progress or MSNBC have the same short memories, or engage in the alarmingly childish excuse of "well, the OTHER guy did it, too!" which is a great excuse for any warmongering from Obama, since his body count is lower than Bush’s. (Arguably, MSNBC is the worst, if only because back before they decided to be the polar opposite of Fox, they contented themselves with being unforgivably spineless during the run up to the Iraq war, meaning they are O-2 in terms of giving presidents hell.)
The "objective" media has its own cascade of problems and biases. So keen on being fair, restrained, and in possession of as much access as possible, they do not often dig for stories that would undermine government or its pet projects. Now, when something like Edward Snowden’s leaks occur which is impossible to deny, mainstream media does its due diligence. They report the latest NSA revelations in that circular way that the media now functions. Sometimes – like Reuters with their criminally under-discussed piece on the DEA’s use of parallel construction from last August – they score an important scoop. But do they dig up deep, dangerous stories? Do they, say, question the very existence of the NSA, or other security outlets? Not often.
The media is accused by the right of being liberal so often it’s a liberal joke. Meanwhile, the radical left has reasonable complaints about pro-Israel reporting, or a timidity and corporate interests being the top priority. They’re both right, in that the media is pro-state much of the time. During senior year of college, I studied media coverage of Waco and found a fascinating habit of trust in the federal officials’ story. During the standoff, the media rightfully complained about being restricted from the Branch Davidians’ "compound" – and then they dutifully recorded ATF or FBI comments as if they were objective reports from particularly knowledgeable outsiders. Again, the half of a two-sided conflict that was barring the media from witnessing the events first hand was treated as an impartial, expert source of information. This is an incredibly dangerous attitude that eventually gives us one-sided "documentaries" as viewers of CNN’s "Crimes of the Century" series may have witnessed last year. Thus is bad journalism turned into bad history.
Sometimes the media wises up in time to berate themselves for not doing better. Once the war in Iraq was officially a historical mistake, pundits and papers of all kinds realized they had been unforgivably obsequious towards the state right when we – and more to the point, a few hundred thousand Iraqis – needed them the most. And the ten year anniversary of the invasion saw more self flagellation over the many media failures made during that heady time. Whether any lessons were learned about power from that war remains to be seen. (I might have some optimism about the media if I hadn’t ever been to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.)
What the American press needs is some combination of the alt media’s chutzpah and the mainstream media’s (relatively) careful sourcing and ethics. The answer to big media’s fallibility and credulity is not to believe every Infowars.com article or YouTube video that professes to contain all the government’s darkest secrets revealed. What’s required is radical questions backed up by understanding of how to prove your points to the drowsy folks in the middle who would prefer to live their own lives. This is a pipedream. The bare minimum to ask, however, is that the media at least fight harder against the man who has demonstrated so little respect for their profession during his six years in office.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.