“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” – Henry Anatole Grunwald
There is a very simple reason WikiLeaks has sent a furious storm of outrage across the globe and it has very little to do with diplomatic impropriety. It is this: The public is uninformed because of inadequate journalism. Consumers of information have little more to digest than Kim Kardashian’s latest paramour or the size of Mark Zuckerberg’s jet. Very few publishers or broadcasters post reporters to foreign datelines and give them time to develop relationships that lead to information. Consequently, journalism is atrophying from the extremities inward and the small heart it has will soon become even more endangered.
Hero in Disguise?
So, long live WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. And if Pfc. Bradley Manning is the leaker, he deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Good government, if such a thing exists, is the product of transparency. Americans have very little idea of the back-stories that lead to the events they see on the nightly news or read about on the net. How did such messes end up being such messes? If journalism were functioning at appropriate levels, there would have been stories that reported some of the information contained in the cables now published around the globe. If my government is giving away suitcases of cash to foreign leaders, I damn sure have a right to know there is a diplomatic thug sucking away my tax dollars on false promises. I want to know if the leader of a country getting billions in foreign aid from the US is involved in drug trafficking. The fact that a few Arab countries are very concerned about Iran’s nuclear capabilities might have helped build political support for the US-Israeli position against the construction of uranium gas separators.
Secrecy tends to lead to disaster and there are several object lessons to study as a result of American adventures abroad. Saddam Hussein was Donald Rumsfeld’s and Ronald Reagan’s secret friend as long as he was bombing and gassing Iranians to the east. Secrecy led to Iran-Contra and back door dealing in arms to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, who did not have the support of the country’s population and were eventually defeated. There are, of course, countless other examples ranging from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Bay of Pigs and the information contained in the Pentagon Papers, and, uh, of course, the lies about WMD that propagated our current misadventure in Iraq. Democracy ought not be bribing and lying in the name of democracy.
Hero in Uniform?
The horror over WikiLeaks, which is being expressed mostly by inept diplomats, is disingenuous in the extreme. The consistent claims that lives are being endangered by the information borders on the hilarious. How many lives have been lost to erroneous, yet secret information that led to our invasion of Iraq? If WikiLeaks had been around in 2003 the public might have been well armed with information to create political resistance to W’s folly in the ancient deserts. It is, of course, of equal absurdity to suggest there is no need for clandestine operations. But taxpayers and voters tend to acquire their information after the consequences of secret government endeavors, and, obviously, that is a bit late to be of preventive value.
And where is journalism in all of this? Not only has it lost resources and a bit of will to cover international affairs, the craft of reporting has surrendered most of its sense of balance and fairness. Objectivity has never existed. Stories have always been framed for purpose and over-dramatized because reporters want to lead a newscast or be above the fold on the front page. Judy Miller’s incompetent reporting, and the New York Times, pathetic editing of her work turned the paper into a trumpet leading troops to war. She used third hand sources confirmed by a military and a White House that wanted war, a process one intel agent told me was akin to “shouting in a garbage can.” A viewer must watch TV closely or read stories with extreme skepticism for any number of reasons, which is why we need WikiLeaks and its unvarnished and unframed data.
Here’s why journalism is, in the end, inadequate. Reporters cannot be objective because they are a product of their experiences. They cannot ignore their upbringing, socio-economic status, circle of friends, personal self-interests, and the viability of the employers they serve. Regardless of what we might think, an African-American reporter is more likely to write with sensitivity about the Civil Rights movement than is an anglo Southern male from rural Alabama. Their perceptions of the event have a great probability of being diametrically opposed based upon what they heard from parents and peers as they were coming of age.
How is this manifested on TV and in print? In the previous administration, there was a budget bill that included a number of earmarks but also some critical funding for up-armoring military vehicles in Iraq. Democrats voted against the bill because of the abundance of pork and, primarily, because the money going to funding the up-armoring was considered wildly inadequate. Republicans voted for the measure and derided Democrats for abandoning our troops. The headlines on this story, inevitably, reflected the political tilt of the broadcaster or publisher. MSNBC suggested conservatives were cheating our soldiers by wasting money on projects in the districts of powerful congressmen. On FOX News, however, producers framed the story by saying, “Democrats vote against a bill that would provide further protection for US troops in Iraq.” Neither story was completely accurate but they both demonstrate why journalism is not fair in America and why, indeed, it may be irretrievably broken. Objectivity may be a myth but fairness is an achievable goal. But neither will happen without information that goes un-spun by special interests.
Which is why, for the time being, we all need WikiLeaks.