The government's authoritarian war on journalism: How a flaccid press enabled this Orwellian disgrace

Officials launch an all-out assault on free press -- with nary an objection from the Fourth Estate's guardians

Published August 25, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Many readers will know, or know of, the Committee to Protect Journalists. It has been around since the early 1980s and does a lot of honorable work. This is what we all know about the C.P.J. But it is not all we need to know. The C.P.J. also exhibits the usual American biases when the big ideological chips are down on the table. This must be said plainly.

Few people in or outside the craft seem to think much about this. But it is not a small problem. It is a symptom of a very big problem that belongs to everybody. What happens when reporters, editors and their news organizations defer at every turn to the preferences of power? Short answer: Rot accumulates. Flaccid work becomes the norm. A slow, daily accretion of bad judgments, or refusals to judge independently, produces a weak institution that no longer understands its responsibilities, to say nothing of fulfilling them.

The C.P.J. reports frequently on difficult media conditions in Venezuela, for instance, but takes no cognizance of a long-running C.I.A. subversion campaign that greatly complicates the scene. This is indefensible. There is no judging any revolution without reference to the counterrevolution. No exceptions, in journalism or anywhere else.

A C.P.J. report on Ukraine a year ago was, sorry to say, patently over the top. It was based on one researcher’s one trip to Kiev—nowhere else—and had nothing whatever to say about press problems, which are severe, under the U.S.-backed Poroshenko government. It focused wholly on the rebelling eastern regions and Crimea even as it quoted not a single source representing either. Not a peep, of course, about the open secret of the Ukraine crisis—McCarthyesque American coverage that has propagandized nearly an entire nation into ignorance and prejudice.

Okay, the C.P.J. comes out net-positive, if marginally, for all the work it does on behalf of seriously endangered and/or imprisoned journalists and the worst excesses of censorship. But its shortcomings and numerous blind spots lead me to this question: Where is our Committee to Protect Journalism? We need one. Fail to protect the craft and you are striking heroic poses while swatting flies for eternity.

You will never guess where the work I propose must begin. We have to look at three very critical fronts in the assault on journalism under way not in some far-away locale where bullets fly every day but here in our great country (where bullets fly every day).

* * *

Anybody see that PBS documentary aired last week, “Navy SEALS—Their Untold Story”? If not, here is the link, but I urge parental guidance. It is not quite obscene, but it is close.

PBS has put together a history, and I am all for history always. The core problem with “Navy SEALS” is the use to which this history is put. This is what makes the film so offensive.

Anyone my age or a little younger grew up on World War II adventure books such as “Up Periscope,” one I remember to this day. The precursor of the SEALS figured in some of these stories. It was a few frogmen in Speedos and diving masks then, and it did very heroic advance work in Europe, notably on D-Day, and then in the island-hop across the Pacific in the months prior to the atomic bombs and the Japanese surrender.

Fine. Superb footage. Truly remarkable men.

But the PBS film runs into trouble as soon as SEALS were first called SEALS, which was in 1961, when they activated in Vietnam. Instantly these guys were headed for Conrad country—the “Heart of Darkness” barbarities common to “civilizing” powers. “We had rules of engagement,” one veteran recalls breezily, “but in fact it was a playground.” Vietnam a playground. Right.

Can you believe PBS would let someone make that remark on camera at all—and then leave it without comment?

Another SEALS vet from the Vietnam period comes on camera to tell us, “There are parts I’m uncomfortable with, and I don’t want to go there.” One is sure of it, given what we know now about the conduct of American special forces. Nonetheless, the war in Southeast Asia stands on the record of our SEALS as another heroic chapter midway in the glorious story.

We fast forward to such episodes as the 1983 invasion of Grenada, where SEALS helped knock over a social democratic prime minister because President Reagan needed an “I’m tough” moment. It was the single cheapest shot of the Cold War decades in my book, though there are many contenders. But the SEALS get PBS’s credit for “stabilizing the country and triumphing over Communism.”

Takes the breath away, doesn’t it? But by now you know the best is yet to come.

“The threats were shifting in the 1980s—to terrorism,” the voiceover advises us. And so we come to the “war on terror,” ending up—you will not guess this, either—with the “taking out” of Osama bin Laden.

Not even a nod to Sy Hersh’s exposure earlier this year of the bin Laden assassination—since corroborated and then thrown into a deep, dark closet—as a setup to make the Pentagon, the Obama White House and the now-famous SEAL Team 6 look good to Americans if few others. Straight-out dishonesty. In my read, this film is in some measure specifically a reply to the Hersh report.

The film is rich with rubbish. We get earfuls about the “mystic bonds” among the brotherhood of SEALS and “hearts that will not quit.” And it is one continuous story, the film tells us (just in case we missed the point), “from Hitler’s beaches to the war on terror.”

“Obscene” is a strong word even as qualified here, so I had better explain.

Near-obscenity No. 1: This is a very unprincipled use of history to put the point politely. Less politely, PBS is pimping the past heroism of authentically courageous Americans to legitimize the excesses of late-exceptionalist American policy and strategy in all their lawlessness—which is what the SEALS have come to stand for.

Near-obscenity No. 2: What under the sun is PBS doing airing such a frontally propagandistic film? We now have a public broadcaster participating directly in the militarization of the American consciousness.

I long ago signed off on the supposed superiority of the programming at N.P.R. and P.B.S. Frightened since Newt Gingrich’s famous “we’ll zero them out” threat, both have reduced themselves to happy talk for the Williams-Sonoma set. Nonetheless, P.B.S.’s government funding raises a troubling question: Just how far are American media from a relationship with power that is institutionalized at state level?

Keep the question with you. It helps explain why a couple of other problems now arise and why American media have to be held in large measure responsible for both.

* * *

Back in 2010 the State Department issued a definition of anti-Semitism that any right-thinking person must count a shameful attempt to shield Israel from its ever-more-justified critics. Straight off the top, where does the State Department get off intervening in any such matter, whatever may be its definition?

While we will never get an answer to this, its highly pernicious interpretation of this highly charged term remains on the books and so is available to those who, as Israel’s policies toward Palestine grow more objectionable, can be counted on to stifle any discussion of these by any means possible.

When I first read the State Department “fact sheet” I could hardly believe what was on my computer screen. It is here. The salient passages term (1) “demonizing Israel,” (2) “applying double standards” and (3) “delegitimizing Israel” as anti-Semitic.

For the sake of argument, demonizing a nation (as Washington now demonizes, say, Russia) is anyone’s right. So are double standards—the very lifeblood of Western civilization for the past half a millennium. As to delegitimation, I am not even sure what it means, but if it is anything like what it sounds, preserving the right to it is essential to making one’s way in the world as we have made it, I would say.

No, you have not read much about this question, and what you have read almost certainly papers over the utter irrationality of the connection State draws. The exceptions—pleased to report—are David Palumbo-Liu’s carefully complete analyses on this site. Two recent pieces are here and here. I have not seen coverage remotely as thorough as Palumbo-Liu’s anywhere.

“It’s necessary to get back to the basic issue,” he writes. “Is being a critic of Israeli state policies actually the same as being an anti-Semite?  If every time one voices a criticism of Israel one is acting as an anti-Semite, and if making an anti-Semitic statement is prohibited by the State Department, then ardent supporters of Israeli state policies have won a huge victory — they have essentially made Israel immune from criticism, and made anyone even thinking about raising a serious concern about Israel think twice about just how (or even if) to voice that point of view.”

State’s definition has echoed in the national conversation regularly since it was issued. Three years ago both houses of the California legislature passed resolutions referencing the State Department language; in addition, these bills specifically condemned support for Palestine and B.D.S., the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Until last month it appeared that the University of California would adopt State’s language as its own.

The wind out west has since changed direction. The California Senate recently amended its definition to exclude the clauses equating anti-Israeli views with anti-Semitism. A few weeks ago Janet Napolitano, U.C.’s president, surprised everyone when, at the last moment, she announced that the regents had dropped the entire thought.

My take: Amid increasing protests, it simply got too hot to push this junk into law and land it atop nearly a quarter-million students and faculty. But it would be foolish to assume this is other than a running fight, far from over.

“Shameful” is almost as strong as “obscene,” so what do I mean?

Shame No. 1: To accuse critics of Israel of hating Jews is a tiresome, nonsensical ruse everyone has heard one time or another. To institutionalize this is, among much else, another cynical use of history and memory—and another offensive memorial to the 6 million, in my view.

Shame No. 2: We have here a brazen attempt to control thought and speech for purely political purposes, straight out of Orwell and Huxley. What comes after this, one has to ask. In the land of the freedom-worshipping individual, conformity in our views grows subject to law.

Shame No. 3: Not only are our media cowed into more or less silent acquiescence. I take it further: They did much to engender a climate wherein America’s foreign ministry would dare try something like this on. The line of responsibility is straight and boldly drawn.

A friend asked recently, “Does this mean the truth is anti-Semitic”? One rejects State’s definition as a matter of course, but accept it and the answer is yes. One would have to stand proudly accused if required. One’s deep objections to Israel as it has become cannot change until it stops dishonoring two great peoples who long lived side by side in peace.

* * *

After a speech I gave in Kuala Lumpur some years ago, an American embassy official in the audience put his hand up and asked a hypothetical question: “You are a correspondent and you have information of immense news value. It will jeopardize American intelligence agents if you filed the story. What do you do?”

“What if” questions are almost always pointless or traps—or both, as this one was.

I said, “Your job.” There may be extenuating circumstances, as in times of war, but the principle otherwise holds: An American journalist is a good American by being a good journalist.

Now we have a new Defense Department report, the Pentagon’s first-ever “Law of War” manual. I do not know when the Pentagon got authorization, or from whom, to write law of this kind, but here we are: This 1,180-page how-to, published in June, is a guide explaining all aspects of war and its proper conduct. It is very lawyerly. Included among its many topics is a guide to journalists as to how to do their jobs in conflict zones.

In gist, if they do them well they can be classified as enemies. Death, capture, imprisonment: It is all on the table.

Here is the document, the outcome of a process that began in 2006, by which date things had gone to hell in Iraq and Bush II’s “war on terror” was proving a wobbly narrative.

“The law of war is part of who we are,” the document begins. “The law of war is part of our heritage, and obeying it is the right thing to do.” None of the above three statements is true—not as the “law” applies to journalists in the Pentagon’s rendering of its legal authority.

The lightning-rod phrase that has drawn most attention is the suggestion that journalists may be treated as “unprivileged belligerents.” This is a stone’s throw from the “unlawful combatants” category Bush II’s lawyers concocted after the September 11th events, and you can take this as a clue to the provenance of this document.

“The Obama administration's Defense Department appears to have taken the ill-defined practices begun under the Bush administration during the war on terror and codified them to formally govern the way U.S. military forces treat journalists covering conflicts.”

That is Frank Smyth, a senior adviser at the aforementioned C.P.J. and among the first to fasten onto this document’s dangerous implications. Bravo Smyth and the committee in this case.

“The manual's justification for categorizing journalists this way,” Smyth continues, “is not based on any specific case, law or treaty. Instead, the relevant passages have footnotes referring to either other parts of the document or matters not germane to this legal assertion. And the language used to attempt to justify this categorization is weak at best…. This broad and poorly defined category gives U.S. military commanders across all services the purported right to at least detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial.”

Here is Smyth’s thorough analysis. Others, including Reporters Without Borders and the New York Times, have also raised their voices.

Fine, although the protests have not been as loud or as many as one would like, and a forceful rejection of the Pentagon’s baldly aggressive moves against American media is wholly in order. The Times just reported that lawyers at Defense will consider amendments to the “Law of War” tome based on these objections. Also fine. But the history at work here, once again, directly implicates the Times and most other protesters.

Go back to the Vietnam defeat and the blame cast on the press for reporting it accurately (when it finally did). The Pentagon was determined never to make the same mistake, recall? And by the first Iraq war, the new principle was established: To cover it correspondents had to “embed” with an American unit.

Maybe you recall protest then, too, but if you do you must not forget how quickly editors and publishers capitulated. It was a strategic mistake and a drastic ethical breach. The right moves for the Society of American Newspaper Publishers would have been to say, “We refuse,” file a lawsuit and urge members to publish pictures of body bags arriving at Dover Air Base on page 1 every day of the conflict.

The media made another big mistake after Bush II declared his “war on terror.” Nomenclature was not a small matter once the American press accepted this phrase and began using it without quotation marks. Had the media asserted itself as the independent pole of power they are supposed to be they would have insisted, “No, this is not a war, and we will accept nothing accruing to the term.”

How much would have been different? It is painful to ask but we all must, readers and viewers as well as practitioners. Consider this new Pentagon attempt to intimidate, and State’s “anti-Semitism” nonsense, and the PBS documentary on the SEALS. They are all symptoms of a pallid, uncourageously run institution. Too many empty chairs on the Committee to Protect Journalism.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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