“Obama’s war on journalism.” That’s what Eli Lake, national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and Newsweek (and former State Department correspondent for the UPI) called it.
“Instead of calling it Obama’s war on whistleblowers, let’s call it what it is,” he said.
Other journalists agreed.
“It is virtually impossible at this point to overstate the threat posed by the Obama DOJ (Department Of Justice) to press freedom,” wrote Glenn Greenwald in the UK’s Guardian on May 20, referring to the surveillance of Fox News’s James Rosen as well as to the seizure of AP telephone records.
The Fox News story prompted the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza to claim that “the case against Fox’s Rosen, in which the O administration is criminalizing reporting, makes all other ‘scandals’ look like giant nothing burgers.”
Maybe the Fox News case is indeed the bona fide 16-ounce burger scandal among the others that have bubbled up to distract from the president’s second-term agenda and lift his Republican opponents’ spirits. Scandal-ranking may be fun for pundits, but it doesn’t help us understand whether or not the administration’s handling of them amounts to a “war on journalism.”
That’s because journalism and the powers that be, from the White House to the State House, should be (and often are) “at war.” The powers that be don’t want journalists to find out some of the things they are doing or not doing – and the means they use to cover up both. And reporters use the means at their disposal, from anonymous sources to classified information, to shed light on what the powerful are doing. Disclosing classified information, Greenwald observed, “is something investigative journalists do every day.”
True, but when do the sources that provide them with that information turn from whistleblowers into traitors, and the journalists who use that information into their co-conspirators? When disclosure threatens the safety or lives of Americans? But whom should we believe that the threat or danger is real and imminent: the government that says it is, or the whistleblower whose information may contradict the official claim?
That’s why journalism, as Kurt Andersen wrote in New York magazine during the George W. Bush administration, resembles a “sausage factory. … Journalism exists to get us closer to all sorts of truth, and anonymous sources are essential to the endeavor. Even now they provide more social benefit than they extract in moral costs…Journalism is like sausage, and if you’re squeamish, it’s better not to see it being made.”
You could say the same of government, but few would be willing to say that truth is what it seeks much of the time. So the “war” between the White House and journalism is neither new nor shocking, but it is new to the current administration and its president. And that may be why Obama’s people are waging it with means disproportionate to the alleged crimes or violations by journalists.
It boils down to this: Journalists are sausage-makers, and our politicians are snake-oil salesmen. But the people often blame the messengers – the media – when the snake oil fails to cure, but forgive those who sold it to them. Bill Clinton felt our pain and then increased it, but we love the Arkansas used-car salesman anyhow. Obama promised change, and the majority of us swallowed his medicine – but when morning came, the outsourced jobs were not winging back to the United States, and the income gap between the great unwashed and the filthy rich was not shrinking. Some in the mainstream (a.k.a. liberal) media have figured that out.
Sausage-making, as democracy, is messy business. Let’s keep it that way.
Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.