A Response To ‘Democracy in America’ About Journalism And Patriotism

So my post on the NYTimes and their reporter David Rohde’s’ got picked up by Instapundit (thanks, Glenn!) and a few others. One of them was a new blogger to me at the Economist site – ‘Democracy in America’ (sigh. Am I going to have to cover the same ground I did with Yglesias and remind him we’re a Republic and many of us are happy about that?)

He was unhappy with my post – rather lengthily so. His arguments are pretty straightforward and (as I commented in his remarks) a bit doctrinaire, and I’m afraid that he manages to miss my point and in doing so, he makes my point out to be far more doctrinaire than I meant it to be.

Now at the moment, I think Robert Fisk is doing brave and good reporting – which worries me because I’ve been so dismissive of him in the past, and I’m not sure which perception to distrust. So please don’t call this a ‘fisking'; it’s simply easier for me structure my points by interpolating them into his.

So here goes…

YOU may have read over the weekend about how David Rohde’s’ (pictured), a New York Times reporter, recently escaped from seven months in captivity with the Taliban. But you probably don’t remember reading about his initial kidnapping – because the Times, as well as other major outlets that got wind of the story, agreed to maintain a news blackout on the abduction, after numerous experts suggested that publicity would make Mr Rohde’s’ captors more likely to kill him. But Mark Danziger at Winds of Change is peeved, because he thinks journalists aren’t nearly as circumspect when it’s not one of their own at risk. He cites an anecdote about a panel on journalistic ethics and the military, at which Mike Wallace argued that a reporter accompanying guerillas who are about to ambush American troops should act as a neutral observer, rather than warning his countrymen. It’s not clear whether Mr Rohde’s’ – or many journalists – would take the same view, but Mr Danziger believes that it is, at any rate, symptomatic of an institutional malady, wherein journalists falsely believe themselves to be “above the shared obligations of citizenship”. This is, I think, a badly mistaken portrait on many levels.

Well, the Wallace story is an important one, but it certainly wasn’t remotely the only one I discussed. And if you take a moment to read what I actually wrote, the core points I made were in comparing the treatment of the Rhode kidnapping to other-non-journalistic ones (which were reported), as well as another journalistic one (which was not). I’d be happier with DA’s response if he’d addressed that point – at all.

First, there is the premise that it is extraordinarily rare for journalists to “sit on” information because they believe that the value of disclosure is trumped by some even weightier social good. Yet it’s not hard to think of examples. Most newsrooms, for instance, refrain from naming victims of sexual assault in print. Of course, what really has Mr Danziger’s dander up is the putative lack of journalistic restraint when it comes to stories that may implicate national security – or, at least, stories the government asserts will do so. Yet here, too, there is serious reason for doubt. The Times held its story on the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretap program for over a year – and a year too long by my reckoning – apparently on the theory that it would not otherwise occur to terrorists that they might be targeted for surveillance.

No, it’s certainly not rare; but the fact that it’s frequent doesn’t make asking how suppression of stories comes about – how journalists choose which stories to suppress – uninteresting. The wiretap story was a judgment call, but I didn’t mention it; what I mentioned (in passing) was the SWIFT program – a perfectly legal program, secret, and disclosed by the Times and other newspapers. But, again, that’s a passing comment – my real point was the difference in (apparent) treatment of members of the tribe, as opposed to outsiders.

This is scarcely a new development. Historian Kathryn Olmstead’s excellent book “Challenging the Secret Government” explodes the myth of an overzealous post-Watergate press corps so eager for a scoop that national-security concerns are given short shrift. On the contrary, she documents a widespread sense that the press had gone “too far”, and finds abundant evidence of compliant editors enforcing omerta on stories that, in retrospect, appear to have threatened embarrassment rather than genuine security harms. The problem, of course, is that there’s something of a sample bias here: When the press decides to run with a story over the objections of the security establishment, we hear about it. When they suppress a story, by definition, we do not hear about it – or at least, by the time we do hear about it, we don’t hear much, because the news has gone stale. While one can debate the wisdom of disclosure in particular cases, it is very hard to argue that the NSA programme – which was almost certainly illegal – did not implicate a profound public interest in knowing what one’s government is getting up to. The kidnapping of a journalist is also newsworthy, to be sure, but it seems quite clear that the public interest in that instance is not at all on the same order of magnitude. We do not need to invoke some special concern for the lives of fellow journalists to understand why the obligation to report might seem less compelling there. In other cases, to be sure, the Times has chosen to report on kidnappings – but it seems awfully hasty to assume that’s a function of a double standard for reporters rather than other circumstantial features that led to a different assessment of the risks in the other cases.

Oh, puh-leeze. I’ll see his Olmstead (which was the kind of book that was shocked! to discover that journalists rolled over fortheir political patrons from time to time) and raise him Geoffrey Stone’s ‘Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime‘ – a much more historical and rich examination of government management of news media from a civil libertarians perspective. And note that he still hasn’t touched the truly significant issue – which is the differential treatment of kidnapping victims depending on whether they are of a favored class or not.

But let’s turn to the more general question of whether reporters are “above the shared obligations of citizenship”. The first thing to note, in the case of the rather implausible thought-experiment of the reporter embedded with a guerilla group, is that Mr Danziger does not even appear to consider whether there might be some valid case for “neutrality” in such circumstances. He regards it as self-evidently contemptible. It may well be that a journalist in that position ought to consider the obligation to warn his countrymen more weighty, but it seems foolish not to at least acknowledge that a norm of neutrality, especially for a war correspondent, is not some kind of pointless moral blind spot. It is the precondition for journalists’ being able to get access to hostile organisations. That ceases to be possible if they’re simply part-time combatants without uniforms. For this hypothetical scenario to be remotely plausible, there needs to be a background presumption that journalists will not, in fact, behave in this way.

I kind of feel like he’s dodging any of the points I tried to make here, but let’s play. The symposium I cited was in turn cited by James Fallows in “Why Americans Hate The Media” – a book well worth reading, by a thoughtful journalist who spent some time exploring the disconnect between American culture and our corporate media. The point of the story – as a reminder – wasn’t the ‘thought experiment,’ but the reactions of the journalists and audience. By placing so much emphasis on the substance of the thought experiment, DA engages in some rhetorical sleight-of-hand (A cat in a box? How does the box work, exactly? Whose cat is it? Of course the box can’t keep out the sound or movement of the cat – this is a silly experiment, Herr Schroedenger) and either completely missed the point or wants to avoid discussing it.

Of course, the “ambush” thought experiment is something of a red herring – situations like that just don’t occur with any frequency. The real question lurking in the background – implicit in Mr Danziger’s complaint that journalists imagine themselves to be “above the shared obligations of citizenship” – is whether journalists who expect the protection of the US military in the field hadn’t better remember whose side they’re supposed to be on and run their stories through the filter of what promotes American national interests. This betrays, I think, a rather shallow conception of what the “obligations of citizenship” entail.

So we’re still debating the kind of box the cat went into…but at least we’re getting to some kind of a point. Well, backhanding the point – that the journalists in the field do damn well depend on the protection by (in this case – note that this doesn’t just apply to ‘America’) their own troops may just owe some reciprocal obligation to those same troops.

At the risk of belabouring the obvious, there’s an obvious objection – we might call it a Kantian objection – to a more nationally partisan press. Just as widespread promise-breaking would ultimately destroy the very institution of promising, a more “patriotic” press corps would soon lose the very credibility that makes it seem advantageous. In a conflict between Iran’s state-controlled news outlets and reports leaking in from the international press, what reason does the average Iranian have to regard those foreign sources as anything more than the propaganda their leaders aver it to be? In part, perhaps, because they see that foreign news outlets reveal abuses by their own governments – even when, as in Abu Ghraib, the backlash from that reporting threatens to harm national interests.

This is where my ‘puh-leeze’ above turns into ‘give me a friggin’ break.’ This is a half-baked argument from authority that flatly misreads Kant as well as ignores the modern political philosophers – say, Arendt and my man Habermas. Let’s take a moment; the root of Kant’s liberalism is it’s universality – the notion that we apply the same rules to all people, and in turn expect them to be applied to us (see “categorical imperative” in ‘Metaphysics of Morals’). Now my critique of the journalists behavior wasn’t just that they were ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘unAmerican’ – not in the least. It was – in the case of this specific post that – they weren’t dealing from a universalist perspective, and that, as I put it in the post itself:

The other problem is, if anything, more serious. And it is the simple fact that we are increasingly living in a society that plays by Ottoman rules; meaning that what the rules are depend – of course – on who you are. That’s not something we will survive for long, and simply put, it needs to be exposed and stamped out anywhere we see it.

And yes, there is a conflict in roles that must be addressed, and – not that DA was likely to have read all the other posts I’ve done on the subject – I repeatedly acknowledge that it’s a complex one, fraught with traps.

Am I agreeing, then, that journalists are “above the shared obligations of citizenship”? On the contrary: I am suggesting that sometimes the obligations of citizenship are not shared, but role specific. We assume, in most cases, that a good citizen is obligated to inform the authorities when he learns a friend or colleague has committed a serious crime. An attorney, by contrast, is often obligated not to share such information, at least when the criminal happens to be her client. This is not a case of a conflict between the norms binding on someone qua citizen or qua attorney. Rather, the special rules binding on attorneys are how they carry out their obligations as citizens, not because every defendant deserves to be acquitted, but because the right to representation by counsel is crucial to our legal system. Someone who argued that public defenders ought to remember whose side they’re really on and throw guilty clients to the wolves would betray a stunningly shallow view of the public defender’s role. Equally myopic is the insistence that a journalist observes the “obligations of citizenship” only by viewing the news through a nationalist lens.

The reality is that there’s a complicated balance between the need of journalists to look at society from the outside so as to be able to comment, and on the other to be able to participate through journalism in the creation of the communicative space that occupies the center of the polity.

Now there’s a whole interesting discussion to have about the case where the communicative space is – as it is for much of the media today – is bigger than the polities that create the legal/jurisdictional forms of citizenship that we each must have.

There’s a pull in the educated classes to, as Schaar aptly diagnosed, say that:

“Patriotism is unwelcome in many quarters of the land today, and unknown in many others. There is virtually no thoughtful discussion of the subject, for the word has settled, in most people’s minds, deep into a brackish pond of sentiment where thought cannot reach. Politicians and members of patriotic associations praise it, of course, but official and professional patriotism too often sounds like nationalism, patriotism’s bloody brother. On the other hand, patriotism has a bad name among many thoughtful people, who see it as a horror at worst, a vestigial passion largely confined to the thoughtless at best: as enlightenment advances, patriotism recedes. The intellectuals are virtually required to repudiate it as a condition of class membership. The radical and dropout young loathe it. Most troublesome of all, for one who would make the argument I intend to make, is the face that both the groups that hate and those that glorify patriotism largely agree that it and nationalism are the same thing. I hope to show that they are different things–related, but separable. Opponents of patriotism might agree that if the two could be separated then patriotism would look fairly attractive. But the opinion is widespread, almost atmospheric, that the separation is impossible, that with the triumph of the nation-state nation. Nationalism has indelibly stained patriotism: the two are warp and woof. The argument against patriotism goes on to say that, psychologically considered, patriot and nationalist are the same: both are characterized by exaggerated love for one’s own collectivity combined with more or less contempt and hostility toward outsiders. In addition, advanced political opinion holds that positive, new ideas and forces–e.g., internationalism, universalism; humanism, economic interdependence, socialist solidarity–are healthier bonds of unity, and more to be encouraged than the ties of patriotism. These are genuine objections, and they are held by many thoughtful people.”

But the kind of reflexive ‘cosmopolitanism/good, patriotism/bad’ position that DA takes is undermined by the fact that the communicative space which DA occupies is maintained in large part by the civic structure of the nation-state that DA wants so badly – and that many of the journalists want to badly – to transcend.

It’s a kind of Brentwood (California) cosmopolitanism; a fervent belief in the brotherhood of man, as long as the checks keep coming in, the wine is good, the gardener and maid show up, and the scary people are kept away – they’re all for it. Over to you, DA.
Edited for embarrassing grammar slip

4 thoughts on “A Response To ‘Democracy in America’ About Journalism And Patriotism”

  1. … advanced political opinion holds that positive, new ideas and forces–e.g., internationalism, universalism; humanism, economic interdependence, socialist solidarity–are healthier bonds of unity, and more to be encouraged than the ties of patriotism.

    The lie of all such universalism is that it invariably embraces the least humanistic elements on earth, and the not-so-rare example that this blogger ignores is reporters submitting to or self-imposing censorship on the nature of regimes like Iran’s – not in the interest of “national security”, for which they have nothing but contempt so long as their own flight isn’t hijacked, but in the interest of protecting their own political prejudices.

  2. In past wars, the United States government made it clear where U.S. reporters could go and remain U.S. citizens in good standing. In Pakistan, where the State Department permits U.S. correspondents to operate and even enter combat zones (at their own risk), the United States government bears some responsibility for the ethics of a situation that you and your critic seem to treat (from opposing standpoints) as entirely a burden on journalism. I don’t think it is.

  3. Schaar, who wrote what you cite was criticizing that position…

    Yeah, I got that. My comment was pointed at the Economist blogger, not Schaar.

    I note that the blogger obviously hasn’t seen the Ethics in America series, and he finds the hypothetical question that was posed to Jennings and Wallace to be a) unlikely and b) a no-brainer. After all, what’s the alternative to watching your countrymen walk into an ambush – nuking Tehran?

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