The Crisis in Investigative Journalism
Lots of people when they think of journalism have in mind the mum-and-pop variety — car crashes and the latest gossip, local politics, sports, all the little details about “the time the doorknob broke,” to trot out an old Bob Dylan lyric. A step up from this layer of short and punchy news bits is that more ‘literate’ class of journalism traditionally associated with the New York Times and Washington Post, the so-called newspapers of record, which publish only the most polished, scrupulous pieces by the most ethical journalists. Or so the story goes.
But there is a third layer, the most important one, compared to which all other reportage is mere puff piecework, and this reified sphere is known as investigative journalism, often occupied by paunchy supermen and lithe linguists, such as Benjamin Franklin, H. L. Mencken, Martha Gellhorn, Jack Anderson, George Washington Williams, Seymour Hersh, Woodward and Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson (if you quick-toke a doobie, this example will seem more obvious), Mike Tabibi, and even Ernest Hemingway – the list is long and legendary. What sets their work apart is its adversarial engagement, the refusal to take things at face value or as laid out by the spokespeople for the rich and powerful, the relentless willingness to dig deeper and deeper until the truth is exposed.
Such investigative journalists are the vanguard of the so-called Fourth Estate, bearing the formidable task of watchdogging the other three estates – the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative – to ensure that they remain ‘checks and balances’ to each other in their assigned constitutional tasks of maintaining the Democratic Republic’s integrity and vibrancy. While such journalists are often associated with a ‘paper of record’, their work is so crucial that sometimes some separation even from their publisher is necessary, since publications are owned, and owners have political agendas, and those agendas may conflict with the findings of deep journalism. Recall, for instance, the New York Time’s decision to hold back, on the brink of the November 2004 presidential election, an explosive investigatory report on the Bush administration’s use of the NSA for warrantless domestic wiretapping (shocking revelations that beat Snowden’s by years) – a delay with serious repercussions for the Times’ reputation.
Prior to Glenn Greenwald’s in-depth journalistic interpretation and analysis of Edward Snowden’s raw NSA revelations last year, undoubtedly the most significant investigative journalism in US history came with the publication and analysis of the Pentagon Papers, released to the press by ex-Rand analyst Daniel Ellsberg back in 1971. Of the three branches of government, the Executive is the one that requires the most watchdogging because it is the branch wherein a single individual – the president – has a disproportionate and unilateral power at his disposal, compared to the Judiciary and Legislative, where decisions must come as the result of conference and consensus. The president can potentially become another form of king, if not checked. What the Pentagon Papers uncovered was the history of America’s secret presidential war-mongering in Viet Nam, beginning with the Eisenhower administration down through Nixon’s utterly corrupt regime – a history of unilateral and illegal foreign policy decision-making that by-passed Congress and the people they represent.
This is not merely academic or specious. It seems that very few people recall now that when the chips were down for Nixon, he was actively considering a military coup to stay in office. As legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in a long-form piece for the Atlantic in 1983,
The notion that Nixon could at any time resort to extraordinary steps to preserve his presidency was far more widespread in the government than the public perceived in the early days of Watergate or perceives today.
Nixon’s Kool-Aid drinking (and secret bombing) buddy, Henry Kissinger, had once said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” which would suggest that in the end the jowly president was akin to Onan the Barbarian.
This is the kind of outcome that makes the ill-defined, open-ended “War on Terror” so dangerous to global democracy and liberty, especially as its execution is melded to the most comprehensive and intrusive state surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen – an eavesdropping system designed to not only ostensibly catch ‘terrorists’ before they act, but to treat all citizens everywhere as potential suspects, but especially policy dissenters and journalists who might look into the hidden agenda and expose Administrative (which is to say, Executive office) lies and corruption, with their clear and present danger to the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law. In this respect, many people regard the Obama administration as a far greater threat to constitutional stability than Nixon ever got to be. Indeed, there are some who would argue that we currently live under a military coup, given that even our privacy has been militarized (and/or corporatized).
Consequently, it is no small deal that the Obama administration is trying to force James Risen, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the New York Times, to divulge his source for the revelation that the CIA attempted to sabotage an Iranian nuclear facility by planting false blueprints through a double agent, which is an act of war and a crime. But Risen and his source have been under surveillance for a considerable period of time, and, given the comprehensive nature of the national surveillance dragnet, they almost certainly already know who Risen’s source is and could proceed with prosecuting him without the reporter’s testimony. But Risen has a family, and together they have a life, and Obama is hope a-dopin’ that Risen will cave in under the weight of what he’ll lose and will acknowledge who his source was. And so he waits, now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear his case, to see whether Obama’s Justice Department will have him jailed for contempt or, perhaps worse, fine him into penury.
That’s why Daniel Ellsberg has come out in defense of Risen. As was the case when he released the Pentagon Papers, this is yet another attempt to codify Executive secrecy in defiance of the Constitution. As Ellsberg told the ACLU,
“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”
But Eric Holden, whose Justice Department would oversee Risen’s imprisonment on contempt charges has told confidantes that no reporter would be jailed “as long as he was attorney general,” which sounds almost heartening until you remember back to how many people resigned or were fired during Nixon’s long demise.
However, even if the Obama administration lets Risen off the hook, the message has already gotten out to potential leakers and whistleblowers that this president will destroy anyone who reveals the lies and strategies of the Executive and his MIC handlers. As New York Times investigative reporter Scott Shane – the journalist whose piece on illegal NSA wiretapping was pulled before the November 2004 election – told the Committee to Protect Journalists:
“I think we have a real problem. Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death. There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”
So, again, it would be optimum for Risen to crack and sing; that would have a quick, decisive and probably irreversible chill on future investigative journalism, but the Obama administration, or the next one (these precedents get passed on) can still get the effect they require by scaring the bejeezuz out of leakers. Not only must the Obama administration be stopped, but there needs to be some Bastille-storming, followed by the roll of fat political heads down the red carpet, in order for this systematic en-Gaza-ment of the world to be reversed.
And there may be nations out there, maybe even ‘friendly’ ones, rubbing their collective hands in either schadenfreude or in their own Machiavellian anticipation of purges to come. As goes American democracy, so goes the world – call it American Inclusionism. Certainly Europeans are not immune. The Czech Republic, to take a free-thinking European example, while enjoying a high rating for freedom of the press from Reporters Without Borders (currently ranked 13, just ahead of Germany), was also regarded according to a Gallup poll as having one of the most corrupt governments (94% of Czech respondents regarded their government as corrupt, second in the world behind only Tanzania). Such corruption is all that’s required to turn-key a free press into one that is critically constrained. And as the Gallup poll suggests, there’s plenty of corruption to go around: eventually capitalism doth make cowards of us all, it seems.
No doubt the so-called War on Terror will one day end. All wars end eventually; even wars conducted against an abstract noun. In this case you might have more luck guessing than normal. Look for a cease-and-desist just as soon as Syria and Iran are seized, their gas and oil accounted for; Afghanistan has been made safe for the TAP pipeline, which energy execs hope will run through Iran to the Persian –er, Arabian –Gulf; the Russians and Chinese have been neo-liberated, with Putin piked, Snowden rendered, the Great Wall: keychains; and two secretly negotiated sovereignty-crushing treaties – the TTPT and the Trans-Atlantic trade deal – are installed, along with the dissolution of net neutrality. Then, suddenly, the Apollonian sun will rise and shine once more, the doves will chirp like vultures of leathery love, and Walmarts will hold a 3-day only sale of Google Glasses (don’t be seen without them).
There will always be nuts-and-bolts journalism about the time the doorknob broke. It’s safe; no power is threatened. Obama will be free to tell his updated jokes about drone strikes to the White House press corps, perhaps adding colourful descriptions of cluster munitions ballet, and they will laugh, as they always do, champagne in hand, all excited for a future as crazy as they all are.
John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia. He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.