Should journalists be allowed to have opinions? If so, when and where — and how — should they be allowed to express them? Such questions have been a thorn in the side of the traditional media industry almost since the web was invented, and they have become even more irksome now that Twitter and Facebook and blogs give everyone the ability to publish with the click of a button. Although it involved an open microphone rather than social media, the latest example of a journalist being fired for making an offhand comment is Yahoo’s former Washington Bureau chief David Chalian, who was dismissed for a remark he made about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But social media or not, the underlying question remains the same: why are we trying to pretend that journalists of any stripe are emotionless robots?
Matthew Ingram, GigaOm. Why can’t we just admit that journalists are human?.
Ingram argues that the more we know of a journalist’s opinions, the better: “We need to encourage more transparency rather than less, because there are so many sources of information now that the old “journalist as impartial oracle” approach, or what Jay Rosen calls the “View From Nowhere,” simply no longer works (and was a fiction in any case).”
Slate has two recent articles that illustrate a growing fear of facts. The first looks at the Republican party generally and Mitt Romney specifically.
It’s tough times for facts in America. First Mitt Romney—interviewing for the position of president—declined to release his tax returns because, as he explained, the Obama team’s opposition research will “pick over it” and “distort and lie about them.” He isn’t actually claiming that his opponents will lie. He’s claiming he’s entitled to hide the truth because it could be used against him. As Jon Stewart put it, “You can’t release your returns, because if you do, the Democrats will be mean to you.” These are tax returns. Factual documents. No different than, say, a birth certificate. But the GOP’s argument that inconvenient facts can be withheld from public scrutiny simply because they can be used for mean purposes is a radical idea in a democracy. It has something of a legal pedigree as well.
Probably not coincidentally, last week Senate Republicans filibustered the DISCLOSE Act—a piece of legislation many of them once supported—again on the grounds that Democrats might someday use ugly facts against conservatives. The principal objection to the law is that nasty Democrats would like to know who big secret donors are in order to harass, boycott, and intimidate them. The law requires that unions, corporations, and nonprofit organizations report campaign-related spending over $10,000 within 24 hours, and to name donors who give more than $10,000 for political purposes. Even though eight of the nine justices considering McCain-Feingold in Citizens United believed that disclosure is integral to a functioning democracy, the idea that facts about donors are dangerous things is about the only argument Senate Republicans can muster. Last week even Justice Antonin Scalia told CNN’s Piers Morgan that “Thomas Jefferson would have said the more speech, the better. That’s what the First Amendment is all about. So long as the people know where the speech is coming from.”
That’s a ringing defense of the need for disclosure, which Scalia has always supported.
Not to be outdone, the State Department just won a case about the secrecy behind the diplomatic cables Wikileaks released in 2010 and 2011.
The government, it appears, would like to pretend that never happened even though anyone who cared has taken a look, and their contents have been reported around the world. If you want to double check that they’re out in the public, you can do so here.
Back to Slate:
It sounds like something from Catch-22. A U.S. district court judge on Monday ruled that diplomatic cables published worldwide by WikiLeaks, the New York Times, the Guardian, et al., are actually still secret. Why? Because the government says they are secret…
…The government’s logic, and the judge’s, is—and I do not think I am exaggerating or distorting their arguments here—that just because something is public doesn’t mean it isn’t also secret. In this case, the cables are secret because they contain information that could be harmful if released. Never mind that they’ve already been released by WikiLeaks. They still could be harmful if released by the government.
The ruling seems to uphold a broader U.S. government philosophy that even when everyone knows the government is doing something—conducting drone strikes in Yemen, waterboarding prisoners in Guantanamo—the government can continue to pretend that it is not doing it, and the courts will back it up.
Related: See Glenn Greenwald’s article in today’s Salon about Dianne Fienstein, California Democrat and Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and her continued calls to prosecute those disclosing sensitive government information (eg. drone wars). In it he writes about how government is defining what is a permissible leak and who permissible leakers are (spoiler alert: themselves).
“In sum,” Greenwald writes, “leaks of classified information are a heinous crime when done to embarrass or undermine those in power, but are noble and necessary when done to bolster them.”
A few days ago, Susan King, dean of UNC Chapel Hill’s Journalism School, called for transparency in political ads, a request that has been on the table before, as Steven Waldman broke down back in December.
In late 2011 and early 2012, the Iowa caucus cycle produced 24/7 campaign ads, and some reports indicate that local television broadcasters in the state earned $18 million in campaign advertising. I believe that it is in the interest of the community and the larger political audience to know exactly what a station has earned in an election campaign cycle and to know who purchased those ads. Transparency is the issue here. (via TV News Check)
FJP: Let’s look a little closer at the who question.
This is the first presidential election in which Americans will be inundated with television advertisements aired by Super Political Action Committees. Often negative, these ads frequently mislead voters, provide little or no information, are often inaccurate and reveal the media’s unclean hands when it comes to undermining democracy, observers warn. And it’s about to get worse. The involvement of Super PACs in the 2012 Republican primary contest has skyrocketed with a 1,600 percent increase in interest-group sponsored ads aired as compared to 2008. (via Poynter)
Though super PACs cannot legally coordinate with a candidate’s campaign, past connections to a candidate are likely. But they are big players and as reported by Reuters, they will make broadcasters a lot of money. For more information, see the Free Press’s recent report, Citizens Inundated, in which Timothy Karr writes,
Short of stopping the DVR and freeze-framing the faint disclaimer line at the end of the commercials, there is very little to help consumers differentiate Super PAC ads from those sponsored by candidates.
FJP: On that note, see these tips on how to watch Super PAC ads: