The Compliant Press

The editors of the Christian Science Monitor complain about the Chinese government’s censoring of its press’s reports of bad economic news:

It is one thing for a government that spies on others to keep that fact a secret and even go after an employee – such as Edward Snowden – who leaks such secrets. But is it right for a government to also deny facts about the economy and then attack the messengers of those facts?

China is the latest example of this problem in which a country tries to defy the demand of global markets for transparency and honesty in financial data. Last week, the propaganda arm of the Communist Party ordered Chinese media not to use words such as “cash crunch” or “inadequate liquidity” in reporting on what has been obvious for weeks: a near-panic in financial markets as the government tries to rein in a shadow banking industry that has doubled the amount of loans in three years.

How different is a press that is compliant with authorities, to the degree of suppressing genuine news that the government finds embarrassing, from that? I would suggest that the effect is no different.

The example of the press’s treatment of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt 80 years ago, concealing the degree to which he was incapacited by paralytic disease, whether poliomyelitis or, as has been suggested more recently, Guillain-Barré syndrome, is well known. It has happened here. Can servile media compliance with the government or self-censorship happen here?

The editors of the Washington Post’s advocacy of jail time for one of its own reporters sources if not a case in point is certainly food for thought. The information is already out there, published by several other newspapers. Is national security a reasonable explanation for the Post’s views? Is there a difference between publishing troop movements and publishing the existence of the widespread gathering of telephone and Internet activity? I think we should certainly be discussing whether there is, in fact, a difference.

Is that the real reason for the Post’s views? Or are they trying to preserve contact with administration sources? Preservation to what end if they’re not willing to publish information that’s damaging or, at least, embarrassing to the administration? So they can publish White House press releases? How different is that in effect from submitting their reporting to a government department of censorship?

My own view is that the press should be neither compliant with administrations nor hostile to them. It should report the news and let the chips fall where they may. Picking favored administrations and unfavored ones like some Star Chamber may be gratifying to the editors of the big news outlets but it isn’t journalism and it doesn’t serve the interests of the country.

10 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    You may have missed the more obvious motivation — escaping criminal liability. It appears that the Washington Post solicited, or aided or abetted Snowden in leaking classified information. See the government case against James Rosen. The parties involved, including Greenwald, face criminal charges at the discretion of the Administration.

    The Snowden situation took a more perilous turn when he appeared to be running into the arms of foreign powers where he might give information that was not being publicly disseminated. More serious in my estimation than the government case against Rosen.

  • PD Shaw

    To be clear: Its not my opinion that the reporters have committed crimes. I think that’s the opinion this Justice Department will take when it serves their ends.

  • The “chilling effect” that many of us pointed out with respect to the Rosen matter.

  • steve

    They actually put Judith Miller in jail. No chill was seen. I think the claims about some chill are mostly nonsense. I think the real problem is access. Being first with the news is now more important than nearly anything else, even accuracy. That means you cant lose access. This is even worse at a time when much of media is losing money and they have fewer reporters.


  • steve:

    I think that’s almost 180° wrong. Neither the White House nor the Congress nor any other politician or official needs The Washington Post or the New York Times any more. They can get whatever message they want out through their own web sites, their Facebook pages, and Twitter and they’ll reach whatever audience they want in greater numbers and more specific targeting that way. That means that the access that the WP and NYT have is now, effectively, worthless. They’re just a less effective way of putting out press releases.

    If the traditional large media outlets are to maintain relevance in such an environment, they’ll need to do real journalism rather than just printing press releases. I don’t think they can make the transition. They’ll continue to do what they’ve always done which includes overvaluing their contacts.

  • PD Shaw

    Apples and oranges. Miller wasn’t accused of a crime. She refused to comply with a subpoena and was held in civil contempt.

    “Chilling effect” occurs when ambiguous laws, or laws that can be selectively enforced, stop or alter lawful conduct. As reporters of most stripes attested, Rosen didn’t do anything that lawyers reporting on government don’t do on a regular basis. Reporters cannot know when regular soliciting of newsworthy information can get them a life sentence or a Pulitzer and a movie deal.

  • steve

    Dave- Guess I want clear. The press needs them. More specifically, their reporters need them. They want to be first. I think they still carry more credibility than social media. They dont want to be critical for fear of losing that access. They might be able ot make money doing real journalism, but who will pay for it? If you are going to do real journalism your stories will be longer and come out later. After a month or more of BENGHAZI! you will come out with a fact based story that probably wont make anyone real happy. Most of the time you wont find a real scandal, so the party out of power (and its base) wont like it, and you will probably find some incompetence and/or a lack of planning/leadership, not quite exonerating the party in power, leaving its base unhappy.

    Seriously, what percentage of the population do you see willing to pay for news that is factually correct, especially if it must needs come out days or weeks after the events occur?


  • As I’ve said any number of times, the business model that’s threatened is the large, highly leveraged media conglomerate, not the local newspaper. Local newspapers actually aren’t doing that bad.

    However, nobody ever got rich running a small local newspaper and don’t expect to. They’re journalists for the same reason that there were people running small local newspapers a century and a half ago—because they wanted to, because they felt an obligation to.

    What I’m saying is that the big news organizations are over-valuing access. The value of their access is now approaching zero. Pols or other government officials give them precious little they couldn’t get by going to their Facebook pages and that will get worse rather than better. Glenn Greenwald AKA a “no-name blogger” is getting the scoops now.

    It’s a bit like that old “if a tree falls and there’s noone there to hear it does it make a sound”. If media outlets know something but they don’t publish it, what good is it?

  • Andy

    I would break things down into categories:

    1. Official government releases. This is basically everything Dave mentions in his comment to steve (Press releases, official websites, Facebook, etc.)

    2. Sanctioned government leaks. These are official leaks by the administration when it wants to float a trial balloon or provide plausible deniability. The government will leak to credible media people (ie. not Debka) who have access to a sufficient audience and will report the leak in a predictable manner. The administration gets its message out and can be reasonably certain the message will be what’s desired.

    2a. Sanctioned silence. This is basically what Dave talked about in his post – the official press colluding with the administration to keep stuff secret. I think this kind of collusion is, and will continue to become, less common. Sometimes this collusion is justified – for example, a media outlet will sometimes decide not to publish certain details of unsanctioned leaks (see below) or delay their publication. This usually occurs for national security information.

    3. Unsanctioned government leaks. These are leaks not authorized by the administration. Administrations realize these kinds of leaks happen, but they take measures to try to stop them. The Rosen leak falls into this case.

    For the major media organizations, there is a balance between 2 , 2a and 3. Too much 3 and they risk losing access (and scoops) from 2. Too much 2a and they risk losing scoops from 3. I think in the past this balance was relatively stable because information was more easily controlled. Today it is anything but and, IMO, that explains the weird actions of the WaPo and other organizations who are trying to find that balance while dealing with competition from bloggers, indies, twitter, foreign outlets, etc.

  • jan

    Can servile media compliance with the government or self-censorship happen here?

    It’s already happened, some time ago, but increasingly so under the current administration.

    For instance, if all the so-called scandals, that have occurred in the last 4-plus years, were under a R governance, the MSM investigative reporting would have been vigorous and unending. We would have clear answers to Benghazi, as well as administrative consequences rendered before the last election. The IRS would be having heads roll. The AG would have already submitted a resignation, and the DOJ would be undergoing all kinds of revisions/reforms for it’s actions and inactions in cases involving F&F (accountable for 211 deaths, so far), various IG firings, persecution of the press antics, it’s untoward’s involvement in states’ rights and their voter ID or immigration laws etc. Complex and unread legislation, such as the ACA, would have been pursued and analyzed more fully via the mainstream press, in their zeal to reveal all it’s hidden challenges/discrepancies, leaving it to the free press to question it’s merits, rather than the common citizenry (tea party), making it more difficult for it’s unseemly, one-party Christmas Eve passage.

    Basically, the entire political scenario would have been publicly revealed, fervently chastised and turned on it’s non-transparent head, were all these missteps and overreach been pushed by a conservative agenda, versus a socially progressive one.

    Also servile media is aided and abetted by a servile and liberal academia as well, starting in K through 12, only to be intensified with an even greater transfusion of liberal dogma in college. We live in a very orchestrated and lopsided society, as it stands today.

Leave a Comment