“Objective” Journalism Doesn’t Exist: An NSA Case Study

FourthEstateWatchRed
“[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
—Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Whether by design or dimwittedness, yesterday’s article in the Washington Post (WP) by Ellen Nakashima reporting that the National Security Agency (NSA) “is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records” misleads far more than it informs. Critical information about the phone records collection program rests deep in the article and the overall tone is NSA-friendly. Put bluntly, the article sounds as if it were published by a PR department—not a cantankerous press. We know this because none of these facts from the article were chosen to be emphasized in the headline:

  • “One former senior official acknowledged that 100 percent [collection] was the goal”
  • “In 2006 … the NSA was collecting ‘closer to 100’ percent of Americans’ phone records”
  • “[T]he agency in 2009 struggled with compliance issues, including what a surveillance court found were ‘daily violations of the minimization procedures set forth in [court] orders’” (emphasis ours)

That’s just selecting three. Considering those quotes and others are buried deep in the article, the WP opted for an overall story arc that makes the NSA appear comparatively benign and well-intentioned—and its editorial decisions regarding style and presentation reinforce those themes throughout.

The second paragraph, for example, informs readers the headline is “likely to raise questions about the efficacy of a program that is premised on its breadth and depth, on collecting as close to a complete universe of data as possible” (emphasis ours). First, notice how Nakashima writes that the 30% figure will raise questions as the program’s efficacy, as opposed to its constitutionality, and second how she implicitly suggests the NSA’s collection of 30% of Americans’ call records is not enough. And did you catch how an article that began by suggesting the NSA is collecting comparatively little phone data segues directly into describing how the NSA is in fact intent on collecting virtually all of it? We’re unclear as to why the WP emphasized the former part of that question over the latter, but their decision highlights a narrative that portrays the NSA positively.

Like many establishment media outlets, the WP would likely respond to our criticisms by invoking what they always do: “objectivity.” Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), however, we want to make clear that claim cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Think about it. The examples above should suffice to demonstrate that, regardless of the facts in any given situation, one can always emphasize certain things over others to provide the story a frame or narrative. And fundamentally there’s no problem with that, since gathering facts and assembling them into a coherent story is part and parcel of journalism. The problem arises when these decision-making processes are described as “objective” when they are so obviously not.

Journalism, like everything else, involves decision-making. The WP’s headline was the result not of “objectivity” but of their subjective determination that the story about an NSA presently collecting 30% of all Americans’ call records made for a better lead than the story about an NSA intent on collecting it all. (Those remain, of course, only two possible narratives out of many). We’re unclear on why they made that choice, but there can be no doubt they made a choice. Indeed, they engaged in subjective, decision-making processes for the article’s entire life cycle. If and until establishment journalists acknowledge that their trade is fundamentally about subjective decision-making—in other words, accept reality rather than deny it—they do themselves, and the public, no favors.

On NSA Reform & The Media: Have we Learned Nothing?

FourthEstateWatchGrey

“POLITICS, noun—a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

We’ve long since lost confidence in how major media outlets report on national security / surveillance matters, and their take on yesterday’s hearings in Washington only entrenches that belief. After all, what’s the purpose of “journalism” if media outlets are content merely reporting the facts (i.e., describing them) instead of analyzing them? Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we prefer journalism that’s in line with Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case: “[a] cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority” (emphasis ours). Notice Judge Gurfein’s phraseology that the work of the press “must be suffered” by authority figures suggests that true journalism must be both tenacious and aggressive.

The majority of reporting on yesterday’s surveillance-related hearings fails on both counts. Take The Washington Post (WP), whose article on the hearings ran with the headline “Snowden’s Leaks: Are journalists ‘fencing stolen material’?” While the WP spent fifteen paragraphs exploring the question, they never bothered to present the obvious answer: no. The facts here should not be misunderstood—the answer to the WP’s question is a simple “no” because there is no evidence whatsoever that Glenn Greenwald or any of the other journalists reporting on the Snowden documents has ever sold anything to anyone. As Greenwald himself has stated: “I have never, ever sold a document[.]” That Greenwald has never sold an NSA document didn’t stop major media outlets from writing page upon page exploring the hypothetical situation of whether selling such a document would be a crime.

In other words, rather than explore whether everything Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and others said at yesterday’s hearing was based in fiction or fact, many media organizations quoted the officials at length, implicitly suggesting that what they said either makes sense or should be taken seriously. But we know neither is true. Take a look at this quote from Rogers, reprinted by The New York Times in its article on the hearings: “If I’m hawking stolen, classified material that I’m not legally in possession of for personal gain and profit, is that not a crime?” Almost every word of the sentence is inaccurate, yet readers of the NYT wouldn’t know it. First, Rogers’ hypothetical is nonsensical because (as noted above) there is no evidence that anyone has hawked confidential material. Rather, Greenwald has had a clear history of partnering with—not selling or hawking to—other media outlets in reporting on the Snowden documents, including Globo in Brazil and Der Spiegel in Germany. The second part of Rogers’ hypothetical—selling the materials “for personal gain and profit”—also emerges more from Rogers’ vivid imagination than concrete fact. While Greenwald’s prominence and stature have no doubt increased as a result of his work on the Snowden documents, there’s again no evidence to suggest he pursued this story for personal profit. And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate he’s working on these stories because he believes them to be in the public interest.

Regardless of whether media outlets believe their work to be better “after Snowden” than before, their reporting continues to leave much to be desire on these issues. We’ve previously documented how many politicians in Washington have essentially no credibility when it comes to speaking sensibly or truthfully about NSA surveillance or reform, yet the major media outlets continue to report on these events as if they do. Our question is a basic one: why?

Journalists on Twitter and elsewhere repeatedly declared that yesterday’s hearing demonstrated the Obama Administration’s desire to “criminalize” journalism, to quote Greenwald. Hearing that disheartens us somewhat, because these journalists should know better than anyone that this Administration already has taken significant, concrete steps in the attempt to criminalize journalism. Did we already forget the time when the Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained two months worth of telephone records from the Associated Press without their knowledge? At the time—and this was less than a year ago, keep in mind—AP President & CEO Gary Pruitt said “The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” (emphasis ours). Can it be we no longer recall that the DOJ suggested FOX News reporter James Rosen was a “co-conspirator” as part of his reporting? We remember those things, and we’re here to ensure you do too. Indeed, the mainstream discussion around NSA surveillance reminds us of the poem Ozymandias from Percy Bysshe Shelley—media outlets are focusing on NSA reform with bated breath without realizing there’s no reason to believe there’s any substance behind the Administration’s promises of reform. Promise of NSA reform is like the statue in Shelley’s poem—there’s nothing really there. “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” Shelley tells us, “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”