There is a great deal of outrage over the Department of Justice obtaining phone records of Associated Press calls, supposedly to determine the way in which critical national security information was divulged. Or at least there should be.
But there's more to this story - and the issue of the responsibilities of the press - than is getting discussed. Dots connected below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Crippling the ability of the press to obtain information vital to informing the public is removing one of the fundamental checks on government overreach and tyranny. That this was done in a fashion that appears to have completely bypassed judicial review AND with the cooperation of the telecom companies is more than a little alarming.
BUT... as Digby notes, the alleged justification for the gathering in of these records does not hold up. It appears the critical piece of information had already been divulged by the administration.
I'm going to take a wild leap and guess that the AP sweep was a CYA operation to placate the British who were upset that the AP even had the original story of the glorious thwarted bomb plot --- a story that the administration clearly wasn't all that upset about except for the timing. (According to the AP, the administration had planned to make the announcement themselves a day later.) After all, if the agreement to hold the story broke down over the alleged request that the government not comment for one hour as government officials alleged, it's fairly obvious their concerns were less about national security and more about spin. It was only after Brennan spilled the beans about their real secret that this thing came apart.The American system of government which enshrines freedom of the press in the First Amendment depends on the ability of the press to gather information and disseminate it to the public. An informed citizenry is supposed to be the ultimate check on tyranny. A key part of this is the ability of the press to maintain the confidentiality of sources; people who have information critical to the need to know of the public are not going to publicly reveal it at the real risk of retaliation, unless they have very strong convictions. (The example of what has happened to Bradley Manning shows the risks.) It's sobering to reflect that, without the actions of Deep Throat or Daniel Ellisberg, the United States would be a very different country today. This is something the Founding Fathers counted on. (See Mark Fiore on this.)
AND YET... the necessary corollary to this freedom of the press is to exercise it responsibly. Confidential sources may wish to remain confidential because they are deliberately passing on disinformation. There's a certain amount of "judge and jury" involved in deciding what can or should be reported in the absence of complete information, especially when confirmation is difficult or even impossible.
But as much as congressional Republicans are enjoying their schadenfreude, they would be well advised to think long and hard about their next steps. Even the most cursory look at opinion polls or focus groups reveals that the public is convinced we have an ineffectual and out-of-touch Congress that spends too much time backbiting, grandstanding, and Monday-morning quarterbacking while the country’s problems fester. Arguably, showboating for the cameras and holding hearings are what Congress does best; the temptation is unavoidable.emphasis added
Republicans would be much wiser to pursue a third option: Dig up as much damaging information as they can about the Obama administration and leak it to reporters they know will write tough stories that won’t be traced back to the source. That way, the public won’t see the GOP as being obsessed with attacking the other side and playing gotcha at the expense of the big issues facing the country—the ones voters really care about.
Information is the life's blood of reporting, a key resource of those who deal in power. Those who have it can use it like an addictive drug. It's the issue of access; to get information the press needs access to those who have it - and those who have it can threaten to cut it off if they don't like what the press does with it. And there's the Devil's bargain.
The press should respect the confidentiality of their sources - but only so long as those sources are honest with them. Evidence of manipulation, of deliberate ratfcking should result in loss of anonymity - because after all, that's just as important in the public's right to know, and the proper conduct of the press.
And it looks like we have a pretty clear cut example beginning to take shape here with the release of documents about Benghazi. As Josh Marshall at TPM says:
Generally, once partisan, tendentious sources leak information that turns out to be wrong, nothing’s ever done about it. That’s for many reasons, some good or somewhat understandable, mostly bad. But on CBS Evening News tonight, Major Garrett did something I don’t feel like I’ve seen in a really long time or maybe ever on a network news cast. He basically said straight out: Republicans told us these were the quotes, that wasn’t true. Quick transcript after the jump …emphasis added
So, is CBS or anyone else going to follow up be revealing exactly who released doctored memos to the press? Will we see questions asked about who made the alterations, who approved them, and what they were trying to do? Will the press call for Congressional investigations on this?
Charles P. Pierce adds the historical context here:
A while back, I talked about the dangers inherent when reporters get corrupted by access, a problem that is endemic in Washington, where access (and access alone) can make or break careers. It was demonstrated at full flower during the Great Penis Hunt of the 1990's, when there were really two important political stories but, by and large, only one of them got told. There was the GPH itself. That was the one that got told, as an outgrowth of the nothingburger scandals that dogged the Clinton White House almost from jump. (Why in hell do you not remember Castle Grande? Why do you hate democracy?) But the other story, equally important and defined memorably by Mrs. Clinton, was the organized campaign of rat-fking that linked dingy creatures in Arkansas, to the conservative activist media, to the mainstream media, to congressional offices, and to the Special Prosecutor, whose office was a sieve. With only a few notable exceptions, that story never got told because to tell it would cut the reporter in question off from any sources who were working the first story. This was a considered decision made consciously by upper echelons of the elite political media. Careers got made out of this decision. And we ended up with the ultimate rat-fk — the second impeachment of a president in the country's history.emphasis added
There's no question the AP story is a serious issue of fundamental rights... BUT it's also worth asking how much of the outrage is in defense of those rights, and how much is about protecting the addiction of the press to confidential sources who are playing them in return for access? If the media isn't willing to 'burn' sources when they find out they've been manipulating them, using them to spread misinformation, then how free is the press really? And why should they expect either the government or the public to trust them?
Information is a form of power, and power corrupts. It's an even more troubling observation in light of the corporatization of the media, which treats the gathering and dissemination of news increasingly less as a civic duty to provide an informed citizenry in favor of providing infotainment to dumbed-down consumers in order to sell their eyeballs to advertisers. Not to mention keeping shareholders happy. I deliberately linked to a FOX NEWS story about the AP records in the first link, because you can always count on FOX to be holier than thou when convenient. The issues raised in that article are important - but they aren't the only issues.
It's something to keep in mind while the scandal drumbeaters work Benghazi, the AP story, and the I.R.S. flap as hard as they can, while wondering if a Free Press is worth what we're paying for it.