The mission of the Beltway journalist

Thomas Jefferson envisioned the press ensuring that "light" be shined on our government officials through "investigations." Today, they explicitly devote themselves to the opposite.

Published March 11, 2009 1:23PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Earlier this week, I wrote:

It's difficult to select what one thinks is the single most illustrative symbol of how our country now functions, but if I were forced to do so, I would choose the fact that it is America's journalists -- who claim to be devoted to serving as a check on Government and exposing its secrets -- who are, instead, leading the way in demanding that the Government's actions of the last eight years be concealed; in trying to quash efforts to investigate and expose those actions; and in demanding immunity for government lawbreakers. What kind of country does one expect to have where (with some noble exceptions) it is journalists, of all people, who take the lead in concealing, protecting and justifying government wrongdoing, and whose overriding purpose is to serve, rather than check, political power?

Today, The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus provides as pure an example of this warped "journalistic" mentality as one can imagine:

On the legal issues entwined in the war on terrorism, Obama is, again wisely, proceeding more slowly than many civil libertarians demand. Guantanamo will be closed -- eventually. Military commissions have been halted, torture policies renounced and secret memorandums released.

Yet the Obama Justice Department backstopped the Bush Justice Department's assertion of the state secrets privilege to block lawsuits challenging wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. The administration argued that prisoners in Afghanistan cannot challenge their detention in court. It leaned on the British government to keep evidence of alleged torture secret.

Look at what Marcus is cheering for in that second paragraph, what she considers to be good things:  Preventing judicial scrutiny of illegal government spying and kidnapping programs.  Abducting people with no due process, shipping them off to Afghanistan, and then locking them up for years with no rights of any kind.  Purposely concealing -- keeping secret -- evidence of massive government torture programs.  These are the extreme secrecy and suppression efforts that this "journalist" favors.

Imagine if you walked into a random class in a journalism school and asked one of the students why they enrolled in journalism school, and they replied this way:

I want to become a journalist so that I can help the Government conceal its secrets.  Especially when high political officials break the law, I think it's really important that nobody find out about it.  In particular, I think it's crucial that victims of government torture and illegal spying be prevented from uncovering what was done and imposing accountability on our Government leaders.  And the most important thing is that when government leaders break the law, they not be investigated.

So I want to go into journalism in order to do what I can to help the Government suppress the truth, avoid exposure, and evade accountability -- because I think the key role of journalists is to do everything possible to enable the most powerful political leaders to hide what they've done from the public.  That's what I see as the most important function a journalist can serve.

That's Ruth Marcus.  That's exactly what she's saying here.  She's actually praising the Obama administration for "lean[ing] on the British government to keep evidence of alleged torture secret."  In fact, it's most of our press corps saying the same thing.   Protection of and servitude to political power and the maintenance of government secrets is their driving religion.

Thomas Jefferson, in a 1799 letter to Archibald Stewart, wrote:  "Our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light."  And Jefferson later added:

Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues of truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.

With some important exceptions, our press corps does exactly the opposite of what Jefferson envisioned.  Instead of "trusting to them for light," we have The Post's Richard Cohen demanding that political leaders be permitted to operate -- these were his words -- "with the lights off."  And instead of wanting to "shut up the press" due to a "fear of investigations of their actions," political leaders now want to amplify and glorify the press as much as possible, since it's led by the likes of Ruth Marcus, David Ignatius and Stuart Taylor who are singularly devoted to blocking investigations -- not conducting them -- and ensuring that government wrongdoing remains concealed, not exposed.  All you have to do is read what they say -- compare it to Jefferson's expectation of what the role of the press would be-- and see how twisted and corrupted our national media is.

In Newsweek today, Howard Fineman has one of the flimsiest and most inane -- yet highly revealing -- columns in some time.   Fineman announces that while Barack Obama may be popular among most Americans, "the American establishment' -- who Fineman believes, like most journalists, he speaks for and serves -- "is taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking."  As David Sirota notes, Fineman offers no evidence for his announcement of what "the establishment" thinks and never even bothers to identify what this "establishment" is which is rebelling against Obama, other than to say that "it is a three-sided force, churning from inside the Beltway, from Manhattan-based media and from what remains of corporate America."

Even if Fineman were right that this unseen "three-sided establishment" is becoming disenchanted with Obama, who should care?  Or, more to the point, who should consider that to be a negative reflection on Obama?  What has this "three-sided establishment" done that is remotely positive?  What have they been right about?  What disaster haven't they cheered on and enabled?

Just look at where the U.S. is and what has happened over the last decade.  Look at the mentality as reflected in the Marcus column:  it's urgent that our most powerful elites be permitted to operate in secret, with total impunity no matter what they do, and with no accountability.  What better reflection on Obama could one possibly want to see than the fact that this "three-sided Beltway/media/Wall St. establishment" is supposedly dissatisfied with his actions?


UPDATE:  About that classically execrable Fineman column, Jamison Foser writes:

Howard Fineman doesn't bother quoting or paraphrasing anyone in "The Establishment" in his column about the Establishment turning on Barack Obama. That's because Fineman, though he tries to pretend otherwise, is a member of that establishment. He doesn't need to quote it, he is it. . . .

Fineman's eagerness to speak on behalf of the Establishment is, indeed, creepy. What he says is even worse.

That's the most important truth of American political life:  journalists like Fineman (and Ignatius, Marcus, etc. etc.) endlessly pretend to be watchdogs over the political establishment when, in fact, they are nothing more than subservient appendages to it, loyal spokespeople for it, completely merged into it.  It's not that we have a press that fails to perform its function.  They perform it perfectly.  The point is that their function is to amplify and glorify establishment power -- the exact opposite of what Thomas Jefferson thought they would be doing when he advocated for a free press as the supreme safeguard against abuses of power.    


UPDATE II:  Continuing with my Marc-Ambinder-inspired pledge, we're in the process of contacting Ruth Marcus to invite her onto Salon Radio to discuss her column.  I'll post an update with any response she provides.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------