Thursday, May 30, 2013
Fire! Wolf! Hello?
The metaphor of yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is a paraphrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s opinion on the Supreme Court case which outlawed “dangerous and false speech.” The Boy Who Cried Wolf is one of Aesop’s Fables which is about giving a false alarm. Today’s news (traditional, cable and internet) hyperbole is histrionic on nearly everything – so that when there’s a real issue that comes up, it can’t be distinguished through the noise. Each outlet in their own way hyperventilate stories to the point that it’s surprising anybody has any nerve endings left. Fox News in particular has become the #1 cable news network by shouting about every perceived injustice. So when they whine and cry that the Obama administration is out to get them, it’s quite natural to think that it’s more of the same. The problem is that it’s now actually true.
I wish that there was a more sympathetic target so more people would be wound up. But that’s putting the cart way before the horse. First we need to flash back to 2009 when the Justice Department subpoenaed the phone records and the emails of James Rosen, a reporter for Fox News. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth as to whether the government informed the network as it’s required to – that’s a different (and legitimate) issue. The fact is that a Rosen was reporting on North Korea, one of the “axes of evil” and he was legitimately in and out of the State Department.
Journalism only is effective when people talk to reporters and give information that otherwise might not be revealed. This is how Anderson Cooper “keeps ‘em honest” and how the Fourth Estate keeps a check and balance on power regardless of which party may be in office. Government has every right, and indeed in many cases has the obligation, to keep certain facts secret. The tension between these two needs is what makes this a great country, (and often makes for the best stories) and what distinguishes American democracy.
The media has been quite respectful when the administration asks for stories to be held or modified for National Security reasons. In its war on leakers, the Obama administration is now criminalizing the work of a reporter. As the actual subpoena states on page 4, Rosen is: “an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator.” That is stunning. A reporter searching for facts for a story is a considered a criminal co-conspirator by a Democratic President and his administration. And since the subpoena was granted allowing law enforcement to examine his personal and work emails and phones, the Justice system agrees. Now it’s precedent, so when a President (fill in horrible name here) wants to see what a reporter is working on, the law now supports it.
The irony, of course, is that President Obama is perhaps the most media savvy President we’ve had. As this week's Ramirez cartoon below shows, he's quite up front about how he learns of actions that his administration takes – from the very media that he abhors. As an astute politician he has made all of the right speeches – even ordering a review of recent inquiries including the DOJ’s obtaining phone records from 100 AP different reporters.
The very idea that a free press must be ‘reviewed’ should send chills through every American citizen regardless of one's political affiliation. You don’t have to like the media but they are part of the fabric of a free nation. If George W. Bush had gotten a judge to agree that a New York Times reporter was “aiding and abetting” the enemy just for talking with sources and reporting facts (their job) the response would have been what it should be when President Obama does it: fire! The wolf is at the door! The world is coming to an end! Government has no place whatsoever in putting any restriction on the gathering and dissemination of news. Period.