Unknown Unknowns: Reporting and Repression in The Information Age
Mar 28, 2014
By Whitney Light
2014 Dalton Camp Award - Best Essay by a Post-Secondary Student
In May 2013, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor named Edward Snowden delivered reams of that agency's classified documents to journalists at The Guardian. The resulting series of exposés brought to light U.S. public surveillance and espionage programs, to alarm around the world.
And as story after story rolled out about the NSA's clandestine and questionable operations, Gen. Keith Alexander, its director, had this to say: "I think it's wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000-whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these – you know it just doesn't make sense." Speaking to bloggers for Armed with Science, a Department of Defense mouthpiece, he continued, "We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don't know how to do that. That's more of the courts and the policymakers but, from my perspective, it's wrong to allow this to go on."1
In other words, he said, the government should stop the press. In a year in which some of the biggest news stories concerned execrable government secrecy and mounting threats to the press, this was a new pinnacle. Earlier in the year, The Washington Post broke the news that the U.S. Justice Department had investigated the calls and personal emails of Fox news reporter James Rosen because he was imagined to be plotting leaks in violation of national security laws. Yet, as the Post put it, the only compelling evidence on Rosen was of good, investigative journalism.2 Then there was the Associated Press phone scandal, in which the same department, again in secret, seized two months of reporters' and editors' phone records. That action was broadly condemned as unconstitutional, as well as deeply injurious to the ability of AP reporters to continue working with confidential sources.
All this came on the watch of an administration that has prosecuted more journalists than any other in history. The message of government was clear: the inconvenient journalist must be gagged. of course, that antagonism often exists between government and the press is nothing new. It is as old as the press itself and, arguably, inherent in its mission. Yet the scope and scale of government secrecy and attacks on the press revealed this year suggest that we may be witnessing the start of a new era, one in which the ability of the media to fulfill its basic function as a check on power is more compromised than ever before. Not only have digital technologies sent news media into financial crisis and cutback mode, recent events suggest ever more advantages for government's attempts at control. Spin is uninterrupted when a general can self-publish on social media. Restraint is imposed when a reporter's emails cannot be trusted to be secure. Now authority's ever-present will to evade and sabotage independent scrutiny is matched by the
power of technology to do so with new efficiency. And that is a threat to democracy.
For Canadians, seeing the U.S. fumble through this series of perverse events has been disturbing but also, perhaps, a tad amusing. It's become somewhat de rigueur to observe our southern neighbour with a combination of self-righteousness and pity. But with respect to creeping government secrecy, that bubble burst – if it hadn't already – with revelations of international espionage by the Communications Security Establishment Canada, a member of the "five eyes" intelligence-sharing network that includes the U.S., UK, Australia and New Zealand. Canada was uncomfortably implicated in activity that much of the world and many Canadians, rightly or wrongly, regard as nefarious conduct.
That may be all to the good, however, if it opens up a more inclusive national conversation about reasonable limitations of government secrecy and the ability of the press to maintain its increasingly vital watchdog role. in the U.S., as reprehensible as the recent criminalization of journalists and citizens might be, we can be rather sure there will be hot and extended national debate about it. Average U.S. citizens are not at all shy about matters related to the First Amendment. Freedom of expression is the fundamental right by which all other American rights are protected, be it guns or equality or freedom to criticize the government. For better and worse, free expression and a free press are crucial to the American identity.
Can the same be said of Canada? Constitutionally, of course, the answer is yes. on April 17, 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined press freedom in law for the first time. yet that is only a blip in time compared to the endurance of the American Bill of Rights, set down in 1789. nor is the history of our Charter imbued with the same patriotic furor. And while that, for good reason, may not be the Canadian way, in light of recent circumstances we might devote a little more energy to righteous indignation on matters of such importance.
Democracy without citizen participation is not a self-sustaining model, and yet the signs are persuasive that we're at risk of reaching newlows of government transparency and national ignorance about the policy issues that affect our communities. Reporters on Parliament Hill are regularly denied permission to ask questions or fielded to public relations handlers. Meanwhile, those in officialdom who would actually want to speak with media, such as environment Canada scientists, have been obliged to skirt central issues and follow pre-approved talking points. Journalists also report that getting cooperative and timely access to requests for public documents is often frustrated, deliberately or by wilful neglect. According to the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression's latest report, Canada's three-decades old Access to Information Act ranks 55th in effectiveness in a list of 93 countries, ahead of Angola and Thailand, as researched by the Center for Law and Democracy. outmoded for the digital age, the Act is in bad need of reform. in a show of transparency, the federal government has launched the open Data Portal, supposedly intended to be a go-to source for public information on national affairs. yet a search shows that documents on controversial subjects, such as the F-35 fighter-jet program, are conveniently missing.3
As a group of press gallery journalists wrote in an open letter to their peers, "This is not about deteriorating working conditions for journalists. it's about the deterioration of democracy itself."4
It is tempting to see these events as the aberrant actions of a particularly paranoid and obfuscating government. To blame the current set of politicians for thwarting democracy, however, overlooks the ways in which greater historical currents have gradually and transformatively eroded and handicapped political reporting in Canada.
It was barely a hundred years ago in World War I that Canada first had to consider seriously the balance between citizens' right to know and national security. A brutal and often politically-motivated press censor was established in the Department of Militia and Defence and regulations were put in place to punish those who published information compromising national espionage enterprises and the safety of the army or the nation. Rules against the delivery and possession of prohibited papers were used against 151 newspapers in the course of the war. The atmosphere of hostility towards the press also continued through the Red Scare years that followed.5
A much finer-tuned and collaborative system of oversight, carried out voluntarily by one-time newspapermen, existed during World War II. There cases of explicit contravention were relatively few and difficult to quantify, in part because most editors, apart from those at The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir, were readily compliant. it was an improvement, and yet also perhaps the beginning of an erosion of journalism culture in Canada. After the war, some conscientious but pessimistic censors worried that the lingering effect of wartime measures had been to make many papers timid and incurious.6
In the U.S., the 1960s were a time of considerable victories for American press freedom. The Supreme Court's opinion on the Civil Rights-related case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan delivered a resounding declaration that the discussion of national affairs should be "uninhibited, robust and wide open". Yet in Canada, wrote Donald C. Rowat in
the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, "despite all the recent activity in the United States designed to preserve and extend the traditional openness of American government, there has been little discussion of similar problems."
To be sure, the New York Times exposé of the "massive overclassification"7 of the "Pentagon Papers" (1971) showed that, in practice, America's openness was dubious at best. But Canada had its own struggle. The october Crisis of 1970 saw Prime Minister Trudeau enact the WarMeasures Act without bothering to arrange any rules of censorship; seventeen journalists were arrested and jailed, while only six had been detained during the whole of WWII. it is an irony, as historian Mark Bourrie points out, for the Prime Minister whose name graces the Charter.8
Since then, the way world news is covered has changed dramatically. if there were a golden moment for Canadian political reporting, perhaps it was the 1980s, when the CBC had 16 journalists in its Ottawa bureau and independent papers and television broadcasters from across the country sent representatives, too. Over the next two decades, with the rise of the Internet, and dramatic falls in the share of advertising dollars going to print and broadcast, major news media mergers and declining audiences caused news organizations to sacrifice much of their political coverage. By 2011, the CBC had only five and independent provincial outlets almost no journalists in the press gallery. With the demand on individual reporters to file stories sometimes multiple times per day in different media, the time and resources for in-depth and critical coverage of policy issues has been stretched too thin.9
This is not the result of an aberrantly closed government – though it makes the job all the tougher. It is the product of years of erosion of a strong culture of political reporting and the failure of technology's promise (social media, information-sharing platforms, newer and handier equipment) to make up for it.10 Meanwhile, there are perhaps more tools
than ever available for those in power to create a façade, give journalists short shrift or spin, and speak directly or through partisan pundits to the public. Anyone who has an Internet presence understands this. Thus, it is all the more difficult and important for our press to investigate beyond the crafted image.
It will take many creative and resourceful minds to overcome these widening chasms between journalists, governments and the public. Without solutions, as a nation we are spiralling towards cynicism and disaster. There is reason for optimism. Debates about the recent international scandals of surveillance and hostility towards journalists and whistleblowers, we can hope, are taking place at dinner tables everywhere. Perhaps it will inspire us to think more about the place and value of the press here at home, and how to engage and support it. The relative ease of launching online media start-ups holds promise for non-profit investigative and long-form journalism in the public interest.11 The potential for social media to engage ever-broader audiences is there, too, if we want it. But it is highly unlikely that any government now or in the future is going to make the job of our overburdened journalists any easier. It is and always has been a challenging occupation, and the worst thing we can do now is take our rights (and our media) for granted and tacitly permit the powerful to dominate those who would inform us.
To maintain a functional and enlightened democracy requires a robust culture of inquiry and discussion. it is up to the citizenry to promote and ensure it.
- Jessica L. Tozer, "i Spy, no Lie," Armed with Science (october 24, 2013), http://science.dodlive.mil/2013/10/24/i-spy-no-lie.
- Dana Milbank, "in AP, Rosen investigations, government makes criminals of reporters," The Washington Post (May 21, 2013), http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-05-21/opinions/39419370_1_obama-administration-watergate-benghazi.
- Bob Carty et al., "Review of Free expression in Canada 2012-2013," Canadian Journalists for Free expression (May 2013), http://www.cjfe.org/resources/features/2013review.
- Hélène Buzzetti et al., "An open Letter to Canadian Journalists," The Canadian Association of Journalists (June 2010), http://www.caj.ca/?p=692.
- W.H. Kesterton, A History of Journalism in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), pages 246-247.
- Mark Bourrie, The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada's Media in World War Two (Vancouver: Douglas & Mcintyre, 2011), pages 10 and 264.
- John T. Correll, "The Pentagon Papers," Airforce Magazine, 90 no. 2 (February 2007), http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2007/February%202007/0207pentagon.aspx.
- Bourrie, 261.
- Christopher Waddell, "Berry'd Alive: The Media, Technology, and the Death of Political Coverage," in How Canadians Communicate IV: Media and Politics, edited by David Taras and Christopher Waddell (edmonton: Athabasca university Press, 2012), pages 109-120.
- See Waddell, 123-125.
- For an analysis of nonprofit journalism in the U.S., see Amy Mitchell et al., "nonprofit Journalism: A growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. news System," Pew Research Center (June 10, 2013), http://www.journalism.org/2013/06/10/nonprofit-journalism/.
- For challenges facing the nonprofit sector in Canada, see edward Tubb, "Canada's only nonprofit investigative centre shutting down," J-Source (April 30, 2013), http://j-source.ca/article/canadas-only-non-profit-investigative-centre-shutting-down.