The Fourth Estate Watch – An Introduction to Aggressive, Adversarial Journalism

Hello and welcome to the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW). Here at FEW, we monitor how mainstream media organizations conduct their reporting and we offer our analysis when that reporting fails to live up to the standards of a cantankerous and obstinate press, to paraphrase Judge Gurfein’s observation from the Pentagon Papers case (see the “About Us” section). In short, we aim to demonstrate how aggressive, adversarial journalism benefits and informs the public to a much greater degree than the reporting currently done by mainstream media outlets.

Our inaugural post reviews David Remnick’s recent profile of President Obama. We believe Mr. Remnick’s piece is not worth your time, in large part because Mr. Remnick allows Obama to make a series of misleading or deceptive claims without aggressive follow-up or clarification to the reader. Obama’s word, left unchecked, is presented to the reader as factually accurate even when it is not. What is the point of journalism if an official’s words are simply repeated verbatim, without meaningful challenge when merited? We believe that type of writing should be left to public relations experts and not journalists. Below is a detailed look at some of the flaws in Remnick’s article.

  • Many of the article’s flaws deal with national security issues, as Mr. Remnick essentially allows Obama to say whatever he wants on the subject, unchallenged. Regarding recent disclosures from Edward Snowden, Remnick quotes Obama as saying: “Is the only way to do that by giving some twenty-nine-year-old free rein to basically dump a mountain of information, much of which is definitely legal, definitely necessary for national security, and should properly be classified?” (emphasis ours). This is factually incorrect on its face, but Remnick lets it stand. There is literally zero evidence that Snowden “dump[ed] a mountain of information” anywhere—instead, all of the evidence indicates Snowden gave the information to a handful of journalists (and, even among them, it is believed only Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have the full set of documents) and those journalists have since released the documents in an extremely selective manner (after careful editing and review). Indeed, The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has previously said they have only published one percent of the documents they have. Obama himself previously lamented Snowden’s revelations were emerging in “dribs and drabs.” We believe, then, that Remnick should have explored Obama’s misleading statement further. Which is it, Mr. President: are the revelations coming out in “dribs and drabs” with barely 1% released, or is it a “mountain of information” just “dumped” online? Logically, it cannot be both a mountain dumped and a drip-drip-drip release. The fact that Obama has asserted both simultaneously is unsettling. Remnick should have pressed Obama on this inconsistency and demanded clarification. On another point, Remnick lets Obama’s assertion that the programs are “definitely legal, definitely necessary” stand, even if at least one Federal judge has suggested the programs are unconstitutional and an independent review board indicated that “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation” (emphasis ours). So, despite serious doubt existing as to both the efficacy and legality of the NSA’s programs, Remnick lets Obama say that these programs are “definitely legal, definitely necessary” without so much as a word of challenge thrown in. The reader is left with the impression that Obama is correct when that is far from the truth.

  • Elsewhere on the Snowden revelations, Remnick writes: “Then Obama insisted that what Snowden did was ‘not akin to Watergate or some scandal in which there were coverups involved.’ The leaks, he said, had ‘put people at risk’ but revealed nothing illegal.” As perhaps expected, Remnick passively accepts Obama’s characterization that Snowden’s disclosures have “put people at risk.” Was the President asked for concrete evidence to back up his assertion? Could he even point to one instance in which someone’s life was put at risk as a direct result of the revelations? Were these questions even asked? The reader has no idea, because in Mr. Remnick’s view of journalism, simply quoting Obama’s naked assertion is sufficient.

  • Similarly, Remnick writes: “In Obama’s view, ‘the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it.’” Did Remnick ask Obama to elaborate on what the other way was? Did he ask, in detail, how Snowden’s “another way” could have worked? Again, we will never know if these questions were even asked, since Remnick decided Obama’s assertion that “another way” was possible was sufficient to confirm that another way was indeed possible (i.e., treating the President’s claim as fact).

  • Then there’s the recent disclosures regarding the NSA’s surveillance activity in Germany (in theory a nation with whom the US has friendly relations), in which Remnick writes: “Obama enjoyed a good relationship with Angela Merkel, but he admitted that it was undermined by reports alleging that the U.S. tapped her cell phone.” (emphasis ours). In Mr. Remnick’s view, then, Obama’s relationship with Merkel was undermined by reports of the surveillance and not the surveillance itself. Did Mr. Remnick ask Obama if he felt the relationship deteriorated, instead, because of reports that Merkel’s phone had been under surveillance for perhaps ten years? Was Merkel upset about the reporting or the surveillance? In Remnick’s view of things, apparently the reporting was what caused the relationship between the two leaders to fall apart—not the decade of surveillance of a head of state of a friendly, democratic nation.

  • Moving from NSA surveillance to targeted drone strikes, Remnick’s piece continues to fail the reader. Remnick allows Obama to say, unchallenged: “What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions.” How do we know if any of that is true? Mr. Remnick doesn’t seem curious, since he allows Obama to say it without asking for him to explain. In its famous article on Obama’s “Kill List,” The New York Times previously wrote that “[Obama’s] actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules[.]” So if Obama’s actions on drone strikes have “often remained inscrutable,” how can we possibly know whether it is true that Obama has “tighten[ed] the process so much”? Many of the legal memos outlining the President’s alleged authority to carry out these strikes remain classified and unreleased. What we do know is that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism writes that Obama has launched “eight times as many” drone strikes as George W. Bush, resulting in approximately 2,400 deaths (at least 273 of which are civilians). Did Remnick ask Obama whether these statistics reflect a tightening of the process of a limiting of risk to civilians?

  • Also, the NYT piece on the “Kill List” says “…Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” (emphasis ours). Did Remnick ask Obama whether his unique way of defining “militant” (all military-age males in a strike zone) was part of “limiting” civilian casualties? Why wasn’t this issue pressed? Later on in the piece, Remnick allows Obama to say (again unchallenged) that a principle he cares deeply about is ensuring that everyone is “being treated with dignity or respect regardless of what they look like or what their last name is or who they love…” Did Remnick ask Obama whether the civilian casualities of drone strikes are “being treated with dignity or respect”? Is it dignifying or respectful to define ‘militant’ as all military-age males in a strike zone? (Let’s not forget a recent drone strike in Yemen recently killed many members of a wedding party). We will never know since Remnick never asked these questions.

While there are many flaws with Remnick’s profile of Obama, the FEW believes the most egregious of those relate to national security and surveillance, as outlined in some detail above. Rather than uphold the standard of a cantankerous and obstinate press in these matters, Remnick instead evidently preferred to allow the President a platform to make a series of misleading and inaccurate claims on these matters without challenge. In a sense, we are not surprised, since we seriously doubt the President would have offered Remnick the access he was allowed to report the article if aggressive questions from Remnick were forthcoming. More likely, instead, was that the President knew Remnick would not challenge him on these matters, which is perhaps why he was offered such access in the first place.

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