Water Man Spouts

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Leaks in Perception

Leaks In Perception (Unpopular Essay #24)

If April showers bring May flowers, the amount of controversy over government "leaks" that has been in the news this month may bring a number of controversies to full bloom in the next few weeks. These cases, which are closely related, include Condi Rice getting a subpoena in the neocon/AIPAC spy scandal; Mary McCarthy being fired by the CIA; Team Libby's attempts to force the media to become a side-show in Scooter's upcoming convictions; and Team Libby's admitting to Judge Walton that they have bent, if not broken, his orders to not attempt to try Scooter's case in the media.
The relationship between the government and the media is not, of course, new. The fact that there is a potential for there to be tension between the government and a free press was recognized by the Founding Fathers in Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution. At that time, the "free press" was just that: newspapers and other forms of the written word. It is worth noting that this implies a support of active information gathering, as both reading and writing challenge one to be an active participant in the competition of ideas.
That process began to change with the introduction of the radio. In "The Communications Gap" (the first chapter of "We Talk, You Listen"), Vine Deloria Jr. notes that while few Americans recognized it at the time, a process began in which the competition of ideas was reduced. Rather than having "equally valid interpretations of problems by sociologists, economists, historians, political scientists, and religious leaders, the solutions to problems has been a simple compromise" made between a limited group that exercises "naked power .... to define policies." (page 18)
Both Deloria and Jerry Mander, in his 1991 "In the Absence of the Scared," quote Marshall McLuhan's famous "the medium is the message" to illustrate how the modern technology changed the way Americans receive and interpret the "news." Mander takes us from radio to television. He notes that, at that time, 75% of commercial network television was paid for by the 100 largest American corporations. Considering that there were more than 450,000 American corporations at that time, he concluded that this further restricted the competition of ideas. More, television works in a way that makes those viewing it into more passive consumers of what is being spoon-fed to them by those 100 corporations, than the active information gatherers the Founding Fathers recognized as essential for democracy.
Thus, a growing number of Americans became more inclined to get their "news" from tv, and to less inclined to read. Mander quoted reports indicating that 95% of American families watched some TV every day; that the average home had the tv on for 8 hours per day; that the average child between the ages of two and five watched between 3 and 4 hours a day; the average adult watched 5 hours; and the average adult over the age of fifty-five watched 6 hours of tv a day.
(Home computers have changed this. However, it is worth noting that a significant part of the appeal of the computer screen comes in the way of graphics and bold colors that -- like tv -- promotes a more passive, and less active form of information gathering. Even on political forums, there is frequently an emphasis on "entertainment" rather than substance.)
One result of the changes in the way people receive and process the news has been a decline in people's active participation in the political process. The percentage of Americans who vote is an obvious example. For years, many groups in America had to struggle to gain the right to vote. Today, it is not just that people take this right for granted -- they have too often become a passive observer of politics, and frequently do not even see the connection between what the politicians do in Washington, DC, and in their own life. People say, "I'm not into politics," as if it is a television show. They willingly give up their right to have a say, because they have tolerated, accepted, and finally adapted to the definitions of those 100 corporations.
The war in Iraq, which was widely supported by the American public, had been promoted in the media by the White House Iraq Group using the same tactics that advertisers use to sell other products. However, there has been a dose of "reality tv" in a literal sense in regard to this war: even though the corporate media has attempted to hide the coffins of dead American soldiers, the cost of this war has begun to rise to the surface of the public's consciousness. Those quick snippets of the voices of reason, expressed by the progressive democrats, has acted like a subliminal message.
The conflict on the political stage involves the tool that is known as "leaking." It can be done in many ways. When Condi Rice is accused by attorneys for the AIPAC spies of having leaked classified information to Rosen an Weissman, that is one type. Their attorneys have asked Judge Ellis to drop the charges against them, because they say that "type of backchannel exchanges between government officials, lobbyists, and the press are part and parcel of how Washington works." ( "Lawyer: Rice Leaked Defense Information"; Newsday; 4-21-06) Some are pretending that this is a case involving the 1st Ammendment, and freedom of the press. Yet we know that it is actually a case involving government officials leaking classified information to two people who were working as part of a private intelligence group, who then leaked the same information to a foreign government. No reporters have been charged. It is a case of espionage, not freedom of the press.
In the related cases, there is a conflict between those in the Bush administration who were lying to the public about the reasons they were bringing us to war in Iraq, and those who attempted to be honest. Libby leaked misinformation to Miller, who co-wrote a work of fiction for the New York Times. They timed it for a Sunday when four administration officials went on the morning news shows, and who then said, "Well, it was reported in the New York Times that ...." This is a classic form of manipulation.
Mary McCarthy was fired for "leaking" information on the illegal tactics that the Bush administration is using in their "war on terror.An article by Larry Johnson ("The Firing of Mary McCarthy") on TPM Cafe and TruthOut (4-22) should have Americans wondering if Mary McCarthy actually leaked any information, or if she is taking the weight for the administration's sins. (If by chance she did leak the information, I believe that she should have our respect. A "whistle-blower" is the government worker who exposes corruption by leaking it to the press. One thinks of the Pentagon Papers, or the "Deep Throat" operation to expose the crimes of Watergate.)
The most interesting "leak" case remains the Plame scandal. Much of the scandal involves the WHIG's attempts to damage war critic Joseph Wilson by leaking information to the media about his wife. The reaction to their activities was not what they anticipated.
"Without leaks," Evan Thomas and Michael Isikoff wrote, "arguably, the U.S. government could not function. Trial balloons could not be floated, political scores could not be settled, wrongs would go unexposed, policy could not be made." ("Secrets and Leaks"; Newsweek; 10-6-03) This pompous statement reflects one way that some people risk fooling themselves, of course, and illustrates the self-righteousness of those who would break the law in order to settle "political scores." The WHIG would be surprised by two responses to their leak: the Fitzgerald appointment, and the way the democratic left embraced Joe Wilson.
The corporate media was caught up in Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the scandal. Several were served subpoenas, and testified in front of the grand jury. Two fought the subpoenas in court, in a case that did involve 1st Ammendment issues. The administration and some in the media attempted to define it as solely a free press issue. The federal courts disagreed, however, and when Judith Miller refused to obey a court order, she was incarcerated. When she was released almost 3 months later, the public found out that Judith had not been answering to her editors, but instead was promoting the Rumsfeld/Cheney agenda.
The administration's supporters in the corporate media attempted to manipulate the public's perception of the scandal whenever tensions rose. In July, 2005, when Matt Cooper exposed the extent that Karl Rove was involved in the scandal, the Wall Street Journal "proclaimed Karl Rove the new Coleen Rowley -- a whistleblower just trying to help reporters sort out Joe Wilson's bad information." ("Plamegate Turns DC Upside Down"; CBS; 7-14-05)
Last week, attorneys from the New York Times, NBC, and Time argued that "freedom of the press" would be harmed if they were forced to fully cooperate with Scooter Libby's defense requests. They described the Team Libby tactics as desperate attempts to "cast a wide net" in a "fishing expedition." Lawyers for Judith Miller were among those asking Judge Walton to quash the subpoenas.
Also, in response to Judge Walton's 4-13-06 Order to Show Cause, in which Walton asked both Team Libby and Fitzgerald to address "several occasions" when "information has been disseminated to the press by counsel, which has included not only public statements, but also the dissemination of material that had not been filed on the public docket," Libby's attorneys were forced to admit to leaking to the media. This was after they argued against Fitzgerald for saying he had concerns with providing Team Libby with classified information.
In the weeks and months ahead, progressive democrats and others on the political left will have the opportunity to use these "leak cases" to increase the public's awareness of the criminal activities of the Bush administration, including the threats they pose to the U.S. Constitution. It will require that we become active participants in information gathering, and that we work to get that information into all forms of media -- including the corporate media. In the next couple of weeks, I will be discussing some of the tactics that I think are useful. I am hoping that others will contribute their thoughts on this subject as well.
We can become the medium that conveys the message. And it's the same message that the Founding Fathers communicated through that Bill of Rights.

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