28 November 2004

Monopoly and information

On C-Span today, there was an interesting debate over reporters' right to maintain source confidentiality. The debate follows several high-profile arrests of reporters for refusing to divulge confidential sources to prosecutors, in particular the 18-month sentence handed down to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. In response to the sentence for contempt, Miller said, "This is about all journalists and about all government officials who provide information on the promise of confidentiality. Without that, they won't come forward, and the public won't be informed" (The Washington Post).

In the C-Span debates, those who approved of the arrest cited a number of worst-case scenarios and legal issues, such as the question of who should be included as a journalist (pejorative and comical images of bloggers wearing pajamas came up repeatedly).

As one of those pajama-clad bloggers, I think a larger issue lurks behind this debate. Democracy, if it is to work at all, is driven by people who have access to information. It is, of course, difficult for citizens to learn enough to make educated decisions, but democracy becomes impossible if the people have no idea what the government is doing.

For this reason, the current administration is clearly heading in the wrong direction. The U.S. government has become so secretive that it now insists on keep ing even Vietnam-era decision-making under wraps in many cases. We have CIA files that are decades old that are still classified--even though the countries these files refer to no longer even exist and the agents refered to are all dead. The reason for this is that these files often show the government's deception of the U.S. people. The shroud of secrecy is therefore more often to protect the government from public scrutiny than it is to protect it from its so-called enemies.

Of course, the argument can be made that the government is stronger if it can operate in secret. This is true. Fascist governments are strong. Democracy is messy, time-consuming, and less efficient. But a fascist government isn't our government. A government operating in secret isn't informed by our opinion, but rather by the opinion of those who are in on the secret (corporations, etc.) Investigative reporting (with confidential sources and leaks such as those that led to Watergate) are thus essential to make government more transparent.

Other blogments on the issue include those of Loaded Mouth, Hypocrites.com, Say Anything, and Beldar Blog, Talk Left, and Slate. Many of these bloggers laud the arrest of Miller and even those who don't, rightfully point out that Miller is poorly casted as a rebel leading the righteous cause. She was the conduit for much of the Chalabi misinformation that has come to haunt the current administration. Even so, I feel that WE THE PEOPLE need access to all the information we can get our hands on. I would like to see the day when it was virtually impossible to make any information confidential.

5 comments:

Dave said...

Judith Miller is a despicable tool, a disgrace to her profession. Nevertheless, I am completely opposed to punishing her or any other reporter for failing to disclose their sources, and am appalled that anyone who considers themselves a leftist or liberal would think otherwise.

Patri Ann said...

All I can say is:

Word.

Cosa Nostradamus said...

Another reason for keeping Vietnam era doc's secret is that so many Bushies served under Nixon, some literally (eeeewwwwww). There is a... disturbing ...continuity to the forces of evil.

Anonymous said...

Yes. If all we have is information that's ancient--details about WWII or the Indian Wars--the neocons can always look askance and proclaim that the U.S., having recently solidified its position as the world's sole moral force, is now completely above such nefarious tactics.

Karlo said...

Yes. When all the information we have on the spy vs. spy dealings of the U.S. is comprised of ancient stories of breaking WWII codes and shooting injuns, it makes it difficult. The rightwing neocons can always look askance and defiantly claim that the U.S. has cast off the moral darkness of racism, slavery, and imperialism, and now operates as the world's sole moral force. Three or four decades from now when the current sins come to light, they can then be pinned to the deceased group of wicked weasels as the U.S. again claims to have been newly converted to the moral good. It's like a drunk: After every binge, another promise to foreswear the grog--a determination that last as long as the hangover.