The Press is Now Also the Police
The Press is Now Also the Police
As fallout from the Discord leak continues, the undisguised partnerships of media, intelligence, and law enforcement come into more painful relief
Back from vacation I made the mistake of scanning the news and was shocked by the media’s ongoing orgy of self-congratulation and Two-Minutes-Hating, in response to the capture of “Pentagon Leaker” Jack Teixeira. Glenn Greenwald has already covered a lot of this on System Update, but this represents a major new progression in the ongoing mutation of news media, from public advocate to cop.
The New York Times and Washington Post trumpeted roles in helping identify Air National Guardsman Teixiera for the FBI. “We’re delivering him to you with his head on a platter,” is how Glenn put it.
It’s an awful look for the press. This isn’t tracking down a serial killer or exposing Enron’s fraud. The alleged “crime” here is releasing true information, information that belongs to the American public and is secret only by official designation. At most, a newspaper might decide not to publish such information, but to help jail the leaker? It’s nuts. Reporters are supposed to be interested in everything and listen to information without judgment, like doctors, yet the whole industry is working itself into a moral frenzy because a bunch of overgrown Minecraft enthusiasts were privately passing around a few truths like a joint.
The papers even made a show of using huge newsroom posses to effect capture. One 1400-word Times piece, “A Quick Guide to what the Leaked U.S. Intelligence Documents Say,” was credited to 13 people: lead writer Eric Nagourney, with contributions from Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Julian E. Barnes, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Michael Schwirtz, David E. Sanger, Ivan Nechepurenko, Anton Troianovski, Aric Toler, Christiaan Triebert, Malachy Browne and Chris Buckley.
The fascinating name was Toler’s. In “Finding the Pentagon Leaker”, the Times identified the figure who apparently did most of the sleuthing only as “a freelance reporter who works with us,” but provided a hyperlink showing his day job: director of “research and training” for the absurd intel community cutout Bellingcat.
For the Times, this symbolized a complete turnaround from just 12 years ago, when it partnered with Julian Assange to print “The War Logs,” a far more damaging set of leaks. Just one of those Wikileaks-based stories, “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan, Reports Assert,” was probably more impactful than all the Teixeira docs combined. It described how officials in Pakistan, an ostensible American ally receiving over $1 billion from the U.S. for aid in fighting “militants,” was holding “secret strategy sessions” with the Taliban, to help organize “networks… that fight against American soldiers.”
In a piece in January 2011, then-editor Bill Keller detailed how the Times made a conscious decision to print material it knew government wanted to keep secret. The government back then was viewed as a potential obstacle to its reporting:
From consultations with our lawyers, we were confident that reporting on the secret documents could be done within the law, but we speculated about what the government — or some other government — might do to impede our work or exact recriminations.
The Times spent a lot of time in its “War Logs” coverage reassuring readers that it was releasing documents “responsibly,” and not upsetting its pals in the Obama administration too too much, but the fact remained that the 2010 Times emphasized the newsworthiness of the leaks, not the crime of leaking.
A decade and a half later, Assange is in jail, and the only permitted form of “leaking” in the modern media landscape comes either from the intelligence services themselves, or facsimile organizations like Bellingcat.
What’s the difference? Wikileaks pumped out unapproved leaks and scoops at an unprecedented rate. Bellingcat, founded by the British journalist Eliot Higgins and backed by groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundation, provides “leaks” of facts the state wants to emphasize. It’s also moved aggressively into the anti-disinformation space, cracking down on what it calls “cyber-miserablism” (read: complaining about government policy) and “counter-factual communities.” The latter group turns out to include people like Teixeira, accused of leaking factual information.
“Wikileaks coined the term, ‘Intelligence agency of the people,’” says Stella Assange, Julian’s wife. “Bellingcat went with for the people.”
The contradiction between the past and present behavior of the Times is so glaring, the paper was forced to address the issue. David Sanger’s article, “How the Latest Leaked Documents are Different From Past Breaches,” argues that the difference between then and now is that the current intelligence breaches are more “timely”, whatever that means.
Even if Sanger’s piece made sense — it doesn’t — it wouldn’t excuse a newspaper hunting a leak suspect for feds to catch. Future sources who might have very different motives than this one will obviously hesitate to go to the press if they think they might be served up to authorities. Say you’re the next Daniel Ellsberg, thinking of releasing more documents about America spying on allies, or sending American special forces to fight in Ukraine, or worse. Would you even consider going to the New York Times or the Washington Post after this? Would you risk going to MSNBC, with its fleet of ex-prosecutors on staff, to become part of a Hallie Jackson diatribe about the dangers of “these super-secret documents, just hanging out”? Of course not. In the current environment, that would be suicide-by-reporter.
The press loses its institutional power the moment the public ceases to view it as being separate from government. If politicians aren’t worried about taking a beating in the newspapers, they won’t fear newspapers, and if the public sees that news reports are indistinguishable from party press releases, they’ll eventually skip past media and go straight to the source. That was already happening, but this latest caper is even worse. If the public sees journalists as agents of law enforcement, they’ll literally cross the street to avoid us. The media is in an audience crisis as is. This is a remedy?
The current media sees the old system of serving public curiosity before the needs of law enforcement as dangerous. In a world rife with Russians, anti-vaxxers, and insurrectionists, it’s thought we must dispense with the adversarial idea and present a united front against Threats to Democracy. This started with the mania for attacking “fake news,” blasting even random web posters on Facebook, a Politifact specialty. The next step was hall-monitor media, e.g. Taylor Lorenz trying to catch billionaires saying the “r-word” in Clubhouse, or the Washington Post trying to out donors to Canadian trucker protests. From “misinformation” newspapers moved to malinformation, i.e. news that’s correct but politically wrong. Now we’re at the last step: true but criminal. A profession that once got off on informing the public now seems jazzed by correcting it and punishing its errors of character, like being a “gun enthusiast” or a “gamer,” or trading “offensive” jokes. It’s a short step from playing fact police to appointing oneself the real thing.
People hated reporters when they thought we were just politically biased, power-adoring, elitist scum-liars. How low will our reputations sink when “snitch” is added to the mix? By the time these people are finished, we’ll be looking up even to Congress.