It's harder to define what a journalist (or journalism, for that matter) is than to say that you know one when you see one. And this guy is clearly a journalist. No, not the guy pictured at top, we'll get to him in a minute. I'm talking about THIS GUY -- Jorge Ramos of Univision. The cronied-up, inside-the-Beltway 1 Percenter-type don't even want to talk about Ramos because he shows them up with his tough questions for the people in power. Here's what Ramos says:
“You turn on the TV, and you see very bland interviews. Journalists in the United States are very cozy with power, very close to those in power. They laugh with them. They go to the [White House] correspondents’ dinner with them. They have lunch together. They marry each other. They’re way too close to each other. I think as journalists we have to keep our distance from power.”
“I’m not seeing tough questions asked on American television,” he added later. “I’m not seeing those correspondents that would question those in power. It’s like a club. We are not asking the tough questions.”
Ding, ding, ding! You know who Ramos could have been talking about?....Michael Kinsley of...oh jeez, I can't even remember who he works for anymore. Since people watch a heck of a lot more TV than they read, Kinsley is best known as a former host of CNN's "Crossfire" in those years before Jon Stewart shamed it off the air, the first time. He's an alleged liberal, a pundit, an omnipresent offerer of opinions, most of which are forgotten in the time it take to flip over a page. And you know what he's totally not?....a journalist.
The New York Times Book Review, in its mercurial wisdom, assigned Kinsley to review the new book by Pulitzer Prize-enabling journalist (yes journalist) Glenn Greenwald, the backstory of how whistleblower Edward Snowden blew the lid off out-of-control NSA spying. Personally, I'm a Greenwald fan, but he's an abrasive dude and it's no secret that he rubs some folks the wrong way. And while I also put Snowden in the "hero" camp, there's nothing wrong with a reviewer who wants to make the case that some or most of his disclosures weren't in the public interest. But Michael Kinsley, in his review (published online but not yet in the paper) takes things to a new botton level. He argues:
The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.
So Kinsley believes that in the issue of government secrecy, the right path is clear. It's almost like the famous Las Vegas ads -- what happens in government gets to stay in government, as long as our benign philosopher kings decide that's in the best interest. That's appalling -- and it betrays a stunning lack of knowledge and insight about both human nature and American history. Certainly for the last century and arguably for most of this nation's lifespan, our government has kept a ridiculous number of secrets -- the vast, vast majority of them not to keep us safe but to keep us quiet.
Before Snowden, the most famous modern leak of so-called "national security" secrets was the Pentagon Papers classified history of the Vietnam War that was leaked by Daniel Ellsburg to the New York Times in 1971. Ellsburg was indicted (and cleared) and the leak ultimately played a role in the events that brought down President Richard Nixon and the passions stirred at the time were as great as with the NSA and Snowden. Looking back with four decades of accumulated wisdom, it's clear that the release of the documents posed no actual threat to the security of American citizens...but merely to the job security of politicians who'd lied the nation into a senseless war that killed 58,000 of our citizens and many, many more of the Vietnamese people. That same year, publication of secret FBI documents that were stolen from their office just down the road in Media revealed that under J. Edgar Hoover, federal agents conducted a massive campaign not just to spy on but disrupt legitimate political dissent in America.
Look at something more recent and more prosaic: The ongoing scandal in the Veterans Administration. Was the decision for you to know about the insane and sometimes lethal wait times for ailing U.S. veterans -- in Kinsley's shocking words -- "a decision...ultimately made by the government"? Of course not. It took whistleblowers -- almost always, dedicated employees who try to change the system from inside and who go outside when all else fails -- and the journalist who had no fears about bringing that wrongdoing into the light of an informed public.
That does give journalism a certain amount of power, and what's remarkable -- and what Kinsley fails to mention -- is how rarely that power has been misused. Actual instances of reporters exposing legitimate national security secrets -- future military operations or the identity of undercover spies -- are rare. Yes, journalists are overly aggressive, because that's their important role in the most Utopian view of a democracy, that if they err it will be on the side of exposure and sunlight. Because the adversary -- government -- obfuscates, lies, and then covers up its lies and obfuscation, not in error, but because that's how the machine is designed to operate.
And what's really appalling is not even that one serial pseudo-liberal pundit named Michael Kinsley doesn't believe in journalism or in the core duties of a free press, but the legions of corrupt and contented Beltway journalist types who've downed so many glasses of Burgundy and hunks of steak au poivre with the powerful that they can no longer pinpoint the day that they learned to love Big Brother.
But that's OK, because I also know the only reason we're even having this debate is because somewhere out there, there are still real journalists hard at work. It is that knowledge -- and not the government's still-too-many secrets -- that allows me to sleep at night.