Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Sunday, November 03, 2013

A Sinkhole of Spying and Secrets

Like a huge crater that suddenly appears in the ground, the subject of government surveillance leaves us staring at a sinkhole in our psychic landscape, threatening to suck us all into unknown depths. Its thereness is unnerving.

The outrage over National Security Agency spying after Edward Snowden’s infodump washes over every area of American political life: civil liberties, government lying, foreign policy, traditional journalism—-raising questions about who we were, are and are becoming.

Snowden offers to help the German probe on US monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile calls while the New York Times, now partnering in his revelations, reports on the NSA as “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets...

“It spies routinely on friends...using its surveillance powers to achieve ‘diplomatic advantage’ over such allies as France and Germany and ‘economic advantage’ over Japan and Brazil, among other countries.”

The agency’s activities extend even to the United Nations, where it intercepted the Secretary General’s talking points for a meeting with the President in April.

Crucial question: How much of this did Barack Obama know? The White House sayeth not, but was such UN spying only an academic exercise? Did no one tell the President and, if they did, wasn’t he curious about how they knew? And if he found out, why wasn’t he outraged enough to stop it?

We are in a Grand Canyon of deep muck here that threatens to swallow our identity as an open society and leave us stained in promoting democracy around the world.

Little wonder then that former executive editor of the Times Bill Keller engages Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s sponsor, in a long colloquy on the present and future state of American journalism. Such discussion is more than academic after word that an eBay billionaire is investing $250 million in a Greenwald venture to “throw out all the old rules” of reporting.

The debate is civilized but disturbing. As Keller admits to the shortcomings of traditional journalism but defends its value, Greenwald insists that “honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism.”

Keller responds that “impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced. (Exhibit A: Fox News.)”

For those who spent a working lifetime under such discipline, the debate is disturbing but revealing, and it deserves the attention of journalists, present and future.

If Greenwald, like Fox News, is the future of American news, we are all in a much deeper sinkhole than the NSA scandals suggest.

We may be getting back to an updated version of A. J. Liebling’s maxim, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one.”

Update: Snowden is now emboldened to ask clemency for his crimes but the White House and Congressional Democrats refuse to add insult to the injury he provoked. This messenger has delivered bad news we needed to know. He won’t be shot, but he won’t be rewarded either.

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