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Secreting the News

As the Summer of Double Super Secrecy enters its dog days, what will be harvested in the field of the Plame Game? Currently, New York Times reporter Judith Miller remains a media-darling martyr for confidentiality. A number of critical commentators, especially and thankfully here in Counterpunch, have pointed out that her drum-banging for the Bush Terror/War (Iraq theater) was indebted to another anonymous source, Ahmed Chalabi. Understandably, many on the Left are ambivalent about her status. The mixed response to Miller rests on an equivalence that is key for understanding the current state of secrecy: the confusion between anonymous and confidential sources.

The latter is the current key issue for journalists, as well as the public. Shield laws are indispensable for journalists to ensure the fact of sources; they create a climate of protection so that sources will feel freer to speak off the record. This secures their sheer existence and quantity. At the same time, the quality of those sources matters. By quality here I mean the differential in the relationship between source and journalist, the imbalance in their arrangement.

Confidentiality exists primarily to protect recalcitrant or intimidated sources. The exemplar is the whistleblower. But not all confidential sources are whistleblowers. Even as an insider seeking to make changes in his/her organization, it is a hyperbolic image. Sources do what they do for a range of reasons. The insider might be a mild reformist who feels unable to communicate ideas in an organizational context and looks for an outlet. It could be, as in the case of Chalabi, a mouthpiece for a faction in an internecine power struggle. The motivations need not be pure either (vengeance, for example), but those can be factored out of the final story by the reporter. The term “anonymous source” better captures this range, as it draws us into the murkier world of the “secret perceiver.” To elaborate, we can turn to a big summer of secrecy story-the revelation of journalism’s archetypal anonymous source.
Mute Deep Throats & Public Secret Men

Around the official start of summer (Memorial Day) Deep Throat, that Watergate template for enigmatic revealers, himself was finally revealed. W. Mark Felt (via his lawyer, family, and friends) publicly exposed himself in Vanity Fair as the shadowy source for Woodward and Bernstein’s legendary Washington Post series. Beltway pundits and professional parlor-game historians collectively exhaled. Finally, all speculation and sleuthing could be put to rest.

But did this obscene display end the enigma? Numerous bloggers and other commentators were skeptical at the revelation, including one prominent Watergate researcher (Len Colodny) who astutely noted that we have a “Deep Throat who can’t talk.” Even those who essentially believed that Felt was DT expressed some reservations, including William Gaines, who taught courses at the University of Illinois in which students researched DT’s identity. Regardless of whether Felt is DT, what is important about this event is the fact that the moment of revelation did not end secrecy, but sent it to another dimension.

How fortunate that this whistleblower image was revived concurrently with the Plame Game. What a timely diversion fantasy: amidst the growing power of bloggers and indymedia, “real” journalists matter again! This professional viagra may have even contributed to the brief spurt of hard-hitting questions directed at press secretary Scott McLellan about the Rove affair (incessantly replayed on broadcast news like a proud parent’s highlight reel of Junior’s Little League achievements).

Professional journalism could rejuvenate its mythic mission. By this I don’t just mean renewing the legend of dogged reporters fighting corruption and injustice. I highly doubt that this (or Judith Miller’s “bravery”) will inspire any rush of eager cubs into the profession. Rather, the Deep Throat revelation carries a nostalgia for the days when everything regarding investigative journalism was in its proper place: corrupt White House, watchdogging journalists, supportive editors, a willful populace, and, most importantly here, clean and honest anonymous sources.

Back in those days, an anonymous source fit the mold of the frustrated insider working alone but seeking an outlet. They had weight and a personage. Now, they creep and spread (in a word, they secrete). Ahhhremember when you knew the journalist was on the right side and the anonymous source was helping take down a corrupt regime? Now, the anonymous sources are part of that corruption. And the journalists? Well, Robert Novak, with his enigmatic evasion of responsibility, is just as much a secret man as Karl Rove.

But lest we begin writing a script for “Wonder Years-Watergate edition” let’s take Guy Debord’s advice and “use what is hidden from us.” The Deep Throat revelation was especially a good myth about secrecy. The release of Bob Woodward’s tell-all The Secret Man was shrouded in mystery (that same day Felt’s FBI-supervisor died) and enigmas (Felt himself could answer no questions due to a stroke-related dementia). We can now stop asking “Who is Deep Throat?” and begin asking “Who is the Secret Man?”
To Reveal is to Re-veil: The Myth of the Lone Unmask-man

Among Secret Man’s themes is the unreliability and malleability of memory. Perhaps it is time to clear our own of the sentimental haze surrounding the golden age of scandals. Maybe the Rove affair, instead of establishing “the good old days vs. the corrupt present,” compels us to revisit the integrity of Watergate’s “secret men.”

Woodward’s book and antics urge us to ask, isn’t he too a Secret Man? After Watergate, Woodward became addicted to anonymous sources, creating a 30+ year career by getting insider information to become a stenographer to power. Take, for instance, his “expose” on the CIA, Veil. Like a Beltway David Blaine, Woodward pretends to lift it while weaving a denser fabric. From scrappy “independent” journalist to dependent scribe: in each case Woodward needed his anonymous sources. No wonder he is so willing to defend anonymity even in the Rove case. When asked about the Plame Game during the flood coverage of his book’s release, Woodward substituted half-baked speculation and apologia for investigative research (or even calls for investigative reporting). On Larry King Live, he essentially remarked that the Plame case has no proof of malicious intent, only allegation. The leak could have been an accident, he conjectured, supplemented with a poor word choice by Novak. Woodward seems to be protecting anonymity under the guise of protecting confidentiality. It’s as though he never really left naval intelligence, now on a mission to keep disinfo alive and move public secrecy to new dimensions.

Woodward, by speaking for the now-mute Deep Throat, gives investigative journalism the gift of its mystical ur-figure: the mythic confidential source. This archetype is above all an isolated individual, specifically one who seeks to improve his or her institution by using journalism. While journalists mistily hold on to the reformist impulse of this lone revealer, they forget the latter part-that they are being used as an instrument for someone else’s design. Other questions should arise: is the source working for a larger group (but not the public)? Is the journalist also working for that agenda? How do we figure out what the source is not saying?

It is willfully ignorant to assume that an insider’s claims are primarily geared toward a good faith improvement of an institution. We know that all kinds of sources use anonymity. Public relations, for example, relies not only on visible statements but operates through clandestine communications. The anonymous source also has a well-established history as a psyops strategy (spreading disinfo, rumor-mongering). In the will to protect confidential sources, we can easily forget this other type of “secret agent.”

 

In Masks We Trust: A Sleight of Face

Michael Isikoff, on MSNBC (7/20), articulated the generally held belief about why confidential sources are important to journalism. In a nutshell, it allows investigative reporters to go beyond the official statements and press releases of government agencies. Isikoff is correct in directing suspicion at the public face of government. This first-order skepticism recognizes State-run “perception management” as legerdemain. Isikoff makes his mistake in thinking the invisible unofficial channels are antagonistic, contrary, or oppositional to official agendas. He has fallen for the Ruse of the Face; namely, that underneath the mask is the true face (rather than other masks). Moreover, it is a face believed to be revealed through a secret perception (the anonymous sources). How can these insiders, these shadowy perceivers, possibly be above suspicion?

While seemingly motored by skepticism, this form of journalism retains a deeper faith in the integrity of sources. Through a revelation performed by hidden agents, secrecy will disappear. What kind of illuminated world do we live in where we believe that the bad guys wear black hats but the good guys wear black masks? The guiding assumption here is that truth is truth, lies are lies, and never the twain shall meet.

In other words, disinformation is reduced to pure outright deception. In an amazing propagandistic turn, propaganda itself is limited to its black and white forms. After all, even propagandists themselves acknowledge grey! The ultimate belief here is in reform: the promise of institutional self-correction via journalistic pressure. So, yes, the confidentiality of sources may “belong” to journalism. But anonymity does not belong to it. Anonymity (especially of information sources) has a long history and circulates in other spheres. This is how we can “use what is hidden” in the Rove case.
Journalism and the Secret Sphere

Rather than hang our hats on an ambivalence that gets resolved in “supporting confidentiality protection at all costs,” let’s separate the two kinds of sources. We can then begin evaluating anonymity in its myriad contexts and uses. Journalism would thus not be assessed on its “own” terms (as it would prefer) but through its relations to these other organizations and operations. In sum, the state of journalism can be diagnosed through state/press relations, especially infowar and propaganda strategies. Since Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s landmark study of propaganda in Manufacturing Consent, analysts have focused on official sourcing and flak as two filters on news. In the world of infowar these two filters merge. This hybrid filter is all the more effective because it is hidden in the shadows of anonymity. It is further obscured when we forget about it in the rush to preserve confidentiality.

Once an institutional history of influence-networks is investigated further, journalism can begin an honest self-examination, not one that defensively closes ranks of a semi-profession or results in another whimpering mea culpa. Some professions, when faced with new phenomena that disturb their fundamental belief system, will organizationally address the challenge (through blue ribbon panels, for example). If journalists want any hope of becoming healthy (the jury’s still out on its likelihood), they would immediately investigate the nature and history of leaks as part of the profession’s agenda. This would not just be a matter of organizational self-help. By tracing the history of infowar as political context, journalism would get to some core issues facing democracy and begin serving the public by acknowledging its own complicity in the secret sphere.

Robert Anton Wilson, the paragon of countercultural skepticism, recommends that people keep their naivete in check by frequently asking themselves, “Am I a useful tool yet”? This dose of preventive paranoia may be just what the doctor ordered for mainstream journalism. This is our tough-love advice. Call us when you get your act together.

JACK Z. BRATICH is currently writing a book on cultural panics over conspiracy theories, as well as doing research on public secrecy and popular occulture. He neither confirms nor denies the allegations that he is a composite character. He can be reached at jbratich@rci.rutgers.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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