Five sad reasons American press isn't outraged

Over the last couple of weeks a parade of non-journalists has approached me, offline and online, wanting to talk about the Wikileaks mess. Most of the discussion has boiled down to this, which I'm quoting from a note:

Why isn't the American press screaming at the top of its lungs about this. How can we let the Joe Lieberman's of the world lead this discussion. If the press doesn't take a stand here we are doomed. There will be no reason to have a "press" in this country. Politicians can simply post their "press releases" themselves.

I can think of some reasons. They are sad ones.

  1. Julian Assange isn't a "journalist," and Wikileaks isn't a "journalism organization." Many journalists are horrified by the implications of letting just anybody practice journalism. I've actually heard People Who Ought To Know Better -- journalists, educators, former editors of major newspapers -- call for certification and, in effect, the licensing of Real Journalists. It's as if freedom of the press is a privilege of professionals, not a human right of some mere computer nerd.
  2. The "liberal media" meme is bogus, a giant mind fake. The American press is an infotainment/advertising industry owned by giant corporations and run, on the whole, but rich white men for the financial benefit of themselves and investors. The "liberal media" complaint has long been the refuge of political weasels (remember Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew), but its latter-day power comes from the media itself, manipulated by ultra-rich power brokers like Rupert Murdoch.
  3. Corporations don't like to get caught up in controversy -- especially not these days, when media companies are all in big economic trouble. Reporting about controversy generates an audience. Being in the controversy alienates large parts of the potential audience. It's bad business. (Fox News is not a counterargument. To understand when and how partisanship becomes economically advantageous, read Jay Hamilton's All the News That's Fit to Sell.)
  4. Local media doesn't find this local issue. Our press has, as I predicted years ago, separated out into distinct local and national layers. Most local newspapers today give only a passing nod to nonlocal news (and as a result, AP gets 80% of its revenues elsewhere). Don't go looking for your local newspaper to be worrying about foreign-policy fraud. Not their jobs. Our national mass media scene now is whittled down to a couple of rage-exploitation channels on cable, the New York Times, Murdoch's kleptocracy-supporting Wall Street Journal, and a pathetic free Gannett paper that everybody steps on when walking out of their hotel room in the morning. The network news organizations are hollow shells speaking to dying audiences, fearful of accelerating their own demise by taking a stand.
  5. The concept of "property" has been extended to embrace information, supporting the claim that the information from secret cables is "stolen property." It used to be that telling a lie about a person or a corporation could get you into trouble. Now governments and corporations can claim injury when someone states a fact, and, stunningly, act to enforce silence without any judicial oversight. Now, if you can't tell a lie and you can't state a fact, what else is there? (Note that these restrictions do not apply to those in power -- as shown by the cables, Washington is free to lie, and insiders strategically leak classified information whenever it's politically advantageous.)

There are many people who are legitimately troubled by the release of secret information and there is plenty of cause to question the judgment of the Wikileaks editors who are posting this stuff. Don't go around expecting anyone to have clean hands. I keep coming back to a couple of basic principles. One is that the purpose of government is to protect the rights of the people. The other is that our first freedom is the right to speak freely the truth. If our government turns its back on that freedom, then none of the others will matter. But I'm not writing newspaper editorials or running a newsroom these days.


Point 2 doesn't make any sense. First, you don't explain why the media not being "liberal media" leads to national news outlets not being more supportive of Wikileaks and Assange. The connection just isn't there. Second, it is a liberal media. You don't see it because you're liberal/progressive. So if you sit and watch an evening CBS evening news (our favorite nightly news cast), you are blinded to the liberal bias seeping through every story because of your own world view. As a libertarian, I often come unglued at the overt, obvious and mind-numbingly facile liberal bias in many CBS stories. And the fact that the national media isn't defending Assange is in fact PROOF of its liberal bias. To be a liberal/progressive is to believe in the basic goodness of government. The government can solve poverty, improve our health care and save our banks. So anything that attacks government, for the liberal mind set, is a bad thing. The national media is doing what it does impulsively, taking the government view point on issues and events. The government can't possibly be wrong because it is, after all, the government. It must be defended and those who attack it must be demonized. And this impulse has also taken over the Republican party, which long ago ceased to be conservative and became statist in its own right. The GOP exists solely to perpetuate the GOP. It's core principle is to be against anything a Democrat is for (even if it might align with traditional conservative philosophies), except and unless the government is being attacked by a foreigner, because the government can't be seen bad for a modern Republican (only if it's controlled by a Democrat), because the government is the ends, the the control of which is the prize for which the GOP strives to achieve, so the prize must be protected. If the government is diminished, then the shine comes off the prize for the modern Republican. There is a conspiracy in the Julian Assange meaning of the word between the GOP and the Democrats, and big media. And in the Assange sense, the conspiracy is opaque to the participants, but it's there and very real. And that is why the Democratic establishment, the GOP establishment and the media establishment (in the 60s, hippies referred to this cabal as "The Man") are circling the wagons against Wikileaks and Assange. He is a threat to the conspiracy that makes all of their jobs possible. Only those of us outside the conspiracy, or who haven't been swallowed by its propaganda, can look at the issue in a broader and more nuanced context.

I posted the following on MediaSavvy, but I won't make you read it there. I'd add the following point to Steve's excellent list: American journalists are fundamentally conservative – they hate change. The conventions of American journalism are as ritualistic and metaphorical as a Japanese tea ceremony or diplomatic protocol. Wikileaks is outside their taxonomy and it makes their brains itch. Daniel Ellsberg’s endorsement notwithstanding, the diplomatic cables are not the Pentagon Papers. And the Pentagon Papers currently define the outer edge of acceptable journalistic behavior. Traditional American journalism has almost always been about telling the least objectionable story. Usually it serves the powerful, sometimes it serves the public at the expense of the powerful. It is seldom willing to alienate both the powerful and the public when both are on the same page.

Howard wrote: "To be a liberal/progressive is to believe in the basic goodness of government." Whoa! Count me as solidly liberal/progressive, but that statement has no resonance for me; perhaps some l/b's feel that way, but I doubt it. That's a serious misconception, Howard! The other day when Facebook introduced its new Profile pages, I decided to fill in the "Political Views" section, which I've previously kept empty. I decided on: "Anti-secrecy, anti-hypocrisy, anti-corruption." In terms of social issues, you'l find me mostly on the Liberal side. ... On taxation of the wealthy you'll find me on the anti-Bush-tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy side (and annoyed at Obama for breaking a campaign promise). ... But I'm not ready to label myself "Liberal/Progressive" on Facebook because those terms are too easily misinterpreted by others. As to the US government, I think its current state sucks. It's too secret. There's hypocrisy up the wazoo from our "leaders." And corruption is out of control (i.e., corporate interests can pretty much buy policy -- or at least cause stalemate -- at the expense of policies that would benefit the majority non-rich). To get to the mainstream news media, my Facebook Political Views snippet, I believe, should be their mantra. "Anti-secrecy, anti-hypocrisy, anti-corruption" pretty much describes Wikileaks and now's mission statements. That there are some vocal mainstream journalists so strongly opposed to Wikileaks and in favor of government keeping more secrets is mind-boggling! It's either jealousy (Wikileaks' platform and the work of its editors and volunteers have broken more scandalous stories and unearthed more secret documents than the rest of the MSM combined) or journalists' basic conservatism (I mean practical, not political) and resistance to new ways. Howard, as an admitted "liberal/progressive," I have more respect for Julian Assange and his associates than I do for the American government. "Basic fondness of government"? You've got to be kidding.

Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the corporate media in the US failed to report the fact that the aluminum tubes claimed by the Bush admin to have been purchased for use in a nuclear weapons program were in fact ill-adapted for such use and were more likely purchased for other reasons (I heard that fact mentioned only on the BBC). Rather than verifying the Bush admin's claim, The NYT chose instead to publish Judith Miller's completely uncritical – if not complicit – story, "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts" – a story substantially based on the deliberate leaking of classified information by Scooter Libby, chief of staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. The corporate media are also the same "journalists" who failed to analyze Bush admin claims far enough to realize that a half-dozen specious reasons to invade Iraq did not add up to one good one – something obvious to the millions who demonstrated against the invasion in the biggest global peace protests ever before a war actually started. If Wikileaks' work is not journalism, I can only wish the corporate media did more non-journalism. The vast majority of traditional media worldwide are directly or indirectly controlled by large corporations. It appears to me that most truly liberal journalists working for those corporations were driven out long ago. As for the internet, large corporations are already well on their way to controlling most of that, too; among other things, witness the latest proposed FCC regulations.

For a "free thinker", Howard, you sure do have some rigid definitions. Please don't take that as a criticism, I'm just saying that I'm very surprised: your statements are as absolutes, yet I beg to differ. You say "anything that attacks government, for the liberal mind set, is a bad thing." Really? Look at the "liberal" voters in the UK, chiefly the students - they're attacking their own government and it's a part-liberal coalition. That's what being progressive is all about - progress. If we don't all evolve then we are, pardon the cliché, doomed to repeat history. As for Steve's point 2, do you think Murdoch's media outlets are "liberal"? Personally I think Murdoch feels he is "at liberty" to do whatever the hell he likes just as long as it suits his own agenda and then do whatever it takes to conserve his own power. If you're outside the conspiracy then I'm sure you'll see it's complicated isn't it? It's not so cut and dried after all.

I wonder if fear -- or at least extreme caution -- does not also play a role. Within the past several years, we have increasingly seen action being taken against anyone suspected of consorting with "terrorists". The definition of the "T" word has become increasingly broad, extending to some who are merely suspected of harboring dissatisfaction against the status quo. An example: the FBI raids, earlier this year, of anti-war protesters in Chicago and Minneapolis. With Julian Assange now being labeled a terrorist, albeit unofficially, perhaps there is a reluctance to shout out in support. It is interesting to watch the vehement global protests in his favor, while here we whimper meekly while watching over our collective shoulders.

"And that is why the Democratic establishment, the GOP establishment and the media establishment (in the 60s, hippies referred to this cabal as "The Man") are circling the wagons against Wikileaks and Assange. He is a threat to the conspiracy that makes all of their jobs possible". Maybe we have finally found a new generation of hippies ( another generation of people who may accomplish; in the end; what the hippies tried, but were unable to do; that being the total exposure of corruption and how deep it goes ) !!! "Only those of us outside the conspiracy, or who haven't been swallowed by its propaganda, can look at the issue in a broader and more nuanced context" That list is growing thanks to alternative media sources that are providing "wake up calls" to the whole North American public" Maybe we can avoid "1984" if enough wake up fast enough... I can only hope !!!!

(This is a post from Andy Manson that was caught in the spam filter for unknown reasons. I'm restoring it.)

Your 1st reason may be your shortest - but it's actually the most interesting, and probably the most important in terms of your profession.

The speed, and the timing with which every Journalist and so-called 'commentator' rushes to get in the seemingly-mandatory '...but of course they are not Journalists...' remark when either writing their own puff-pieces or being interviewed on the subject of WL has now reached the stage where it's actually amusing to watch.

I think it's fair to say that in any profession there is a certain type of individual for whom the 'title' of his job is more important than the 'doing' of it.

Of course, for these people, the fact that WL has rapidly usurped the traditional journalist as being the 'go-to-guy' for sensitive material is of course a huge slap in the face. Especially as it's happened against a backdrop of some spectacular failures by the established media in handling both confidential material and the sources of that material. The death of David Kelly in the UK being just one example.

They'll continue to play the 'Oh, but of course I'm a *real* journalist' card, and good luck to them. The world needs these people - a lot of cats get stuck up trees.

Meanwhile the rest of the world carries on. The smarter people in your industry are embracing the fact that a new, reliable vehicle for discreetly delivering interesting material while protecting sources is available. These people will thrive because they can look beyond their own marginal self-interest; while the others....well, frankly I don't think too many of them were ever going to be winning Pulitzers in any case.

I'd be inclined to take this critique of Point #2 seriously if I could figure out what the hell you were trying to say. It's almost Christmas, so I'll chalk it up to *muddleheadedness* even though I think it's obscene for a self-described libertarian to botch the definition of "liberal" this badly: "To be a liberal/progressive is to believe in the basic goodness of government. The government can solve poverty, improve our health care and save our banks." If you can't or won't state your views at least this clearly, why not stick to quoting Hayek? The fact that this book was originally written with only the British public in mind does not appear to have seriously affected its intelligibility for the American reader. But there is one point of phraseology which I ought to explain here to forestall any misunderstanding. I use throughout the term "liberal" in the original, nineteenth-century sense in which it is still current in Britain. In current American usage it often means very nearly the opposite of this. It has been part of the camouflage of leftish movements in this country, helped by the muddleheadedness of many who really believe in liberty, that "liberal" has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control. I am still puzzled why those in the United States who truly believe in liberty should not only have allowed the left to appropriate this almost indispensable term but should even have assisted by beginning to use it themselves as a term of opprobrium. This seems to be particularly regrettable because of the consequent tendency of many true liberals to describe themselves as conservatives. It is true, of course, that in the struggle against the believers in the all-powerful state the true liberal must sometimes make common cause with the conservative, and in some circumstances, as in contemporary Britain, he has hardly any other way of actively working for his ideals. But true liberalism is still distinct from conservatism, and there is danger in the two being confused. Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place. A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege. The essence of the liberal position, however, is the denial of all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others.

I don't pay attention to comments left by anonymous cowards. Use your real name or don't bother me.

Especially about local and national roles in a "do what you do best and link to the rest" world. What bothers many reasonable people is that Wikileaks seems to have no checks and balances. The assumption is that The New York Times, for all its flaws, will exercise some judgment and stop short of betraying the country. Wikileaks seems like it would dump whatever it has without regard to the consequences. I say seems because I sense that there's more judgment to Wikileaks than it gets credit for. I'm surprised at how mainstream Wikileaks has been up to now, working with The New York Times, The Guardian, other big papers, Amazon and EBay's PayPal. Not exactly an underground cell of anarchists. What you're probably looking for is an "I am Spartacus" moment from the nation's editorial writers. But come to think of it, why shouldn't this blog post be about the cowardice of digital powers such as Amazon and EBay and the courage of several big newspapers with a lot to lose? Dying, irrelevant, didn't-invent-Groupon newspapers?

It may not be entirely fair for me to say so anonymously, but the argument in your reply to me —that anonymous speech can be discredited or ignored simply because it is anonymous— is severely damaged by your apparent choice not to engage either the critique attributed to Hayek or the one signed by Steve Outing. This isn't personal. I don't know you any better than you know me. And I don't mean to bother you. But in light of your earlier post, I feel compelled to insist that yelvington's Point #2 stands as written.

thank you. thank you. thank you. for e.g. putting into clear words what stunned me most when action nr. 1 by amazon against WL was made public via the web. and henceforth everything that has unravelled/was published since, as far as I was able to read by The Guardian and other media on the web. where was "America" and it's spirit of freedom ? ever since 9/11 unlimited optimism has been wishing for "the USA" to embrace whatever could be learned from this (and now WL and it's face, J.A.) to improve itself and it's realtionship with "the rest of this world." well. greetings from Germany Angelika

The problem is that BOTH left and right want to use the POWER of the government to do their WILL. Anything that attacks the POWER of the government is to be opposed by both the government and their puppets in the media. You can criticize the policy of the government, but you can NOT oppose their ACTIONS. This will not be tolerated under the current political climate. Neither party is acting in the interest of the people, but only in the interests of the money that supports the major parties. The media is a part of the problem because it is funded by the same corporate groups that fund the two major parties. Isn't journalism supposed to find the root of the problem. And we all know that is easy to do if you just FOLLOW THE MONEY.