Going for Gold: Journalism & the Sochi Olympics

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Part of the reason the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) exists is to keep establishment media organizations in check, as they have historically failed to do that themselves. And when it comes to the Sochi Olympics, many journalists appear intent on outperforming each other as they go for gold in what seems to be the main event: critiquing the Russian government at the expense of virtually all else. While we are certainly not here to defend the Russian government or its laws, we are here to keep an eye on the media. The Sochi Olympics coverage, however, suggests the flame of consistent and equitable reporting has been nearly extinguished.

Much of the Olympic coverage so far, for example, has been dominated by journalists who appear borderline-obsessed with addressing the question of LGBTQ rights in Russia, condemning Russia at virtually every turn. While the question of LGBTQ rights is undoubtedly an important one, we question why media organizations suddenly appear intent on focusing on human rights issues now that Russia is hosting the Olympics. We do not recall similar treatment of the U.S. government the last time it hosted an international sporting event. Can you recall the mainstream media ever criticizing the U.S. government for human rights abuses during the Olympics? We can’t. Although the Obama Administration has launched a record number of drone strikes (eight times more than his predecessor) and the U.S. previously engaged in the practice of “extraordinary rendition”—kidnapping someone from country X and then sending them to country Y for “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture)—we cannot recall a single instance of the media mentioning those human rights issues during international sporting events. Yet the impression one gets from media reports is that LGBTQ issues in Russia are (a) relevant to the Olympics and/or (b) the most important human rights issue of our time.

Again, there’s no question that LGBTQ rights are important and that the FEW believes all individuals should be treated equally and equitably. But instead of focusing on the status of various Russian laws that have little to do with the Olympics, we’d rather ask why media organizations have penned so many articles on human right violations committed by other governments but comparatively few articles for those those committed by their own. If media organizations are to be cantankerous and obstinate, to paraphrase Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case, why do they maintain relative silence when it comes to the alleged human rights violations of the U.S. government? In the lead-up to these Olympics, not a day went by without a new story about LGBTQ rights in Russia. The establishment media organizations have never done such consistent reporting on alleged human rights violations when the United States hosts an international sporting event. The stark contrast in reporting strikes us as both hypocritical and unhelpful.

The hypocrisy is evident in articles like this from The Verge, entitled “Hackers aren’t the Problem at Sochi, Surveillance is.” Right—surveillance is a problem in Sochi. Russell Brandom says in his article that what’s happening in Sochi is “one of the most intensive short-term campaigns of digital surveillance the 21st century has ever seen.” Again, we’re not here to defend Russian practices by any means, but The Verge appears to be writing about an alternate reality. The National Security Agency (NSA) has instituted surveillance programs for those who play Angry Birds and World of Warcraft, not to mention surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM that, by design, are aimed to collect “virtually everything a user does on the internet.” In short, the notion that Russia—not the NSA—is engaged in “one of the most intensive” surveillance operations is nonsensical in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

Media coverage of the Sochi Olympics has also been unhelpful. First, by focusing on the LGBTQ issue in Russia during these Olympics but downplaying U.S. human rights issues (Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, mass surveillance, etc.) during other sporting events, media organizations implicitly suggest that the latter issues are unimportant. At the very least, their reporting conveys to the reader that LGBTQ issues in Russia are far more important than any of the other issues mentioned above. Second, the media’s reporting is unhelpful to those who are actually participating in the Olympics: the athletes themselves. Although they have trained for years and are regarded as the best in their field, the media has so far preferred to focus on unrelated political issues in Russia. The athletes—and the victims of U.S. human rights abuses worldwide—deserve better.

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On Journalism & The Future of Surveillance: Orwell’s vision Realized?

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“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. … You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
—George Orwell, 1984

With government surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM stretching the definition of “watched” to limits previously unimaginable, the future looks set to bring us closer to a literal interpretation of Orwell’s observation above. Craig Timberg’s recent article in The Washington Post sketches the contours of how we might get there: the next generation of surveillance cameras. These cameras, which are mounted onto Cessnas or tall buildings, command a bird’s-eye view of a large area as they hover above it continuously, collecting “a wealth of data” along the way. (Here’s the WP’s graphic of how this works). Since these cameras “can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time,” the future of surveillance looks brighter than the future of privacy. Unfortunately, the WP’s reporting on these cameras fails to explain adequately the tension between surveillance and privacy, and here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) we aim to bring you the stories the establishment media tends to overlook.

The WP’s analysis of privacy rights, for example, leaves a huge chunk of the story unexplained. Timber writes that “[c]ourts have put stricter limits on technology that can see things not visible to the naked eye, ruling that they can amount to unconstitutional searches when conducted without a warrant. But the lines remain fuzzy as courts struggle to apply old precedents … to the rapidly advancing technology.” What he fails to note is that any and all discussion of “unconstitutional searches” or “old precedents” refer to 4th Amendment constitutional analysis. And as any lawyer worth your time will tell you, the 4th Amendment only applies—a critical point, in our view—when there is “state action.” Put another way, when private individuals & corporations launch these next-gen surveillance cameras into the sky, any notion of 4th Amendment rights vanishes into the clouds and ceases to exist.

In other words, the only thing limiting what private individuals & corporations can do with these surveillance cameras is their imagination, technology, and any relevant regulations. That’s it. Timberg himself notes that “businesses and even private individuals can use [these cameras] to help identify people and track their movements” and that “giant defense contractors … are eagerly repurposing wartime surveillance technology for domestic use[.]” The intrepid journalist at the WP never asks why businesses might want to hover cameras in the sky for hours on end or why contractors want to “repurpos[e] wartime surveillance technology” for deployment over U.S. soil (emphasis ours). But instead of questioning who benefits from having “an unblinking eye in the sky,” the WP cites examples that make the surveillance technology seem either innocuous or beneficial. The article cites Ross McNutt—President of the Orwellian-named company Persistent Surveillance Systems—for the proposition that “[a] single camera mounted atop the Washington Monument … could deter crime all around the Mall.” And although an ACLU report bluntly concludes that “video surveillance has little to no positive impact on crime,” readers of the WP are left with the impression the evidence is inconclusive.

The primary fault with the WP article on forthcoming surveillance technologies, in short, is that it appears more fascinated with the technological wizardry of these cameras than it does with protecting privacy rights. This is made clear in the article’s very structure, which places “privacy concerns” at the tail-end, as if the right to privacy was an afterthought rather than a core concern. Given the rapid proliferation of surveillance cameras, we believe public-interest reporting should focus more on privacy and legal implications that may affect millions of people rather than the technological inventions that will most likely only benefit a select few. Recent revelations from Edward Snowden only underscores the point that limitless and ubiquitous surveillance threatens all of us.  The time is fast approaching, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “when silence becomes betrayal.”

Journalists and the public must speak loudly in defense of privacy rights so that we do not unwittingly sacrifice the light of liberty on the altar of surveillance. And while there are clear and significant differences between Orwell’s dystopia and the present, some parallels undoubtedly exist. Ask yourself, do you have “no way of knowing whether you [are] being watched at any given moment”? If you use the internet (i.e., if you’re reading this) then let’s be clear: the answer to that question is “yes.” With each passing day, it makes more and more sense why sales of 1984 skyrocketed last year in the wake of Snowden’s revelations. Perhaps, then, the establishment media has embraced another quote from 1984 as a guide to its surveillance reporting: “Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.”