For as long as the profession has existed, the role of the journalist in society has been questioned. As I write this piece, a debate is raging between two internationally recognized journalists, Chris Blackhurst of The Independent and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian.
The new technological age – one of incredible advancements in communication and surveillance technology – has created a fresh paradigm through which to view the profession of journalism. With swaths of information being collected by government spy agencies like the NSA, CSIS and MI5, and the ability of journalists (with the help of hackers and whistleblowers) to get access to those information stores, the question remains: Do journalists have the right or the responsibility to leak potentially dangerous material to the public? What is the role of the journalist in society?
Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden/NSA story. Greenwald’s dissemination and release of hundreds of thousands of top-secret documents has infuriated governments around the world. Some, like the US and the UK, are fuming that their national security has been put at risk and their ability to fight against Al Qaeda and other threats has been severely compromised. Other countries, such as Brazil, are angered by the realization resulting from the leaked NSA documents that Canada’s intelligence agency has been spying on their mining and energy ministry, in what the Brazilian government alleges to be industrial espionage. Greenwald, then, believes journalists have a responsibility to put information into the hands of the public, for better or for worse.
Chris Blackhurst has garnered a reputation as an accomplished journalist within the journalism establishment. He wrote a piece in The Independent that has raised many eyebrows, most notably those of Mr. Greenwald. Blackhurst’s headline reads: “If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest, who am I to disbelieve them?”. Blackhurst goes on to write that The Independent, like The Guardian, received information from the Snowden files but unlike The Guardian, chose not to publish much of the information because the government asked them to desist in the interest of national security. “Several times in my career,” writes Blackhurst, “I’ve been served with a [Defence Advisory] notice. On each occasion, I confess, I’ve not published. Does this make me a coward and an establishment lackey? Or responsible and sensible?”
Fair questions. But I have to agree with Greenwald when he argues that Blackhurst has written “the perfect epitaph for establishment journalism.” Subservient establishment journalists are an infection to the profession. They have allowed for and become accomplices in some of the worst government-led operations in history. Whether that be toeing the line of the US government in the early and mid stages of the Vietnam War, or being “a trumpet leading troops to war” as The New York Times was during the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, James Moore, writing for the Huffington Post, suggests that secrecy tends to lead to disaster.
Cynicism toward the profession of journalism has been growing steadily, and it is largely due to the damaging actions of establishment journalists. Their obsequious mentality limits their ability or willingness to engage in the single most important aspect of journalism: asking tough questions of those in power in order to put information in the hands of the public, and seeking out those answers when the questions are not answered to their fullest. Greenwald rightfully attacks Blackhurst for his submissive position:
What Blackhurst is revealing here is indeed a predominant mindset among many in the media class. Journalists should not disobey the dictates of those in power. Once national security state officials decree that what they are doing should be kept concealed from the public – once they pound their mighty “SECRET” stamp onto their behaviour – it is the supreme duty of all citizens, including journalists, to honour that and never utter in public what they have done. Indeed, it is not only morally wrong, but criminal, to defy these dictates. After all, “who am I to disbelieve them?”
Who am I to disbelieve them? This is a sentiment that no free-thinking citizen, let alone a journalist for a major newspaper, should ever express. This sentiment goes against everything I believe the profession of journalism exists to undertake; that is, questioning power, its uses, and its abuses.
This sort of infection in the profession of journalism is widespread. A home-grown Canadian example, Rex Murphy, wrote an article for The National Post in which he lambastes Snowden, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning for lacking the experience and the intellect to justify their choice to become whistleblowers: “None of these three should have arrogated to themselves the decision they have made. They were not equipped to make them, intellectually or morally. Emphatically, they are not heroes.”
What, then, should be made of the journalists who helped these men leak their country’s dirty laundry? Were they also not “intellectually or morally” capable of making such decisions? Do journalists have the right to bring information to the public interest when national security officials have decided against it? Or do journalists have the responsibility to help protect the secrets of those in power? And if neither citizens nor journalists have the right or the responsibility to put information into the hands of the public, then who does?
Rex Murphy and Chris Blackhurst would argue, I suppose, that only those in power have the right to the secrets of power, and everyone else must simply accept this as a fact of life. They must simply make do with what little information is passed along by those authorized to bestow that information upon our subservient little minds.
And that, dear reader, is the mantra of the establishment journalist and, if left unchecked, the end of the profession of journalism.