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The Myth of Media Watchdogs

Mises Daily: Monday, October 27, 2003 by

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The revelation that journalists working for ABC News successfully smuggled in 15 pounds of depleted uranium from Indonesia (to highlight gaps in U.S. government security procedures) caused a huge stir both in government and in journalism itself. In fact, some factions in the U.S. Department of Justice would like to prosecute the journalists, although it is almost certain that the government won't go that far, given First Amendment issues of freedom of the press.

The incident and others like it raise a number of important issues regarding government and the press and, not surprisingly, the pundits are coming to the wrong conclusions. While the issue is being framed as one of freedom of the press and the press as a "watchdog" of government, it seems that few people understand that the mainstream media in this country clearly is not a "watchdog" of the state in any true sense. At best, we are seeing the classic "bait-and-switch" operation in which government and the press are telling us one thing when actually doing another.

The freedom of the press is a fundamental right of a free people. In an ideal setting, a free press can expose the predations of the state in a way that nothing else can do, and in that regard, perhaps ABC News has done all of us a service in pointing out to us that for all of its blustering, government does not do a good job in protecting the lives of Americans from attack by others. From the September 11 attacks to the daily murders in Washington, D.C., government at all levels fails to provide even the basics of the security all of us are heavily taxed to finance.

Indeed, if that were the message of ABC, I would not be writing this article. Unfortunately, the real message that we receive is that (1) journalists are above the laws that they demand the rest of us obey, and (2) government needs to grow even larger and more oppressive. Although I doubt that Peter Jennings and his crew would openly admit to my charges, I will demonstrate that despite their protestations, ABC—and mainstream journalists in general—have been partly responsible for the Leviathan State that has proven to be much more effective at oppressing people at home than it has in preventing outsiders from attacking the rest of us.

A telling statement comes from ABC News Vice President Jeffrey Schneider, who was quoted as saying, ""In our view, we do not believe we are in violation of the law because it was not our intent to defraud the U.S. government, to smuggle in contraband or to avoid duties. It was to test the system."  In other words, while ABC's reporters technically violated the law, they did so without intent, so they should not be prosecuted.

Actually, I agree with that statement; would be that the leaders of ABC News and other mainstream news organizations such as the New York Times actually agreed, at least when someone else is in the dock. To put it another way, these media executives are calling for journalists to be protected when they may violate a law without intent to do wrong, yet they are first in line to demand that such protections not be conferred upon other people. In fact, this is hardly the first time that mainstream journalists have participated in the commission of a felony, as the press has often served as a vehicle to enable government officials to break the law and to be protected from any legal consequences.

In an article on the performance of the mainstream press in the Martha Stewart case, I pointed out that while the charges against Stewart seem specious at best, there actually were felonies committed in the investigation of Stewart. The first was the leaking to the press of information from a Congressional investigation of the sale of ImClone stock involving Stewart, and the second was the obvious leaking of federal grand jury testimony to the New York Times by the staff of U.S. Attorney James Comey.

To the editors of the Times and their defenders, this is simply "good journalism."  In reality, it is nothing more than a news organization permitting a federal prosecutor to use that organization as a personal mouthpiece. Such leaks, because of their timing and the selectivity of the information that is released, are almost always devastating to defendants in court cases. First, they help to poison the jury pool by helping to create a lynch mob atmosphere, and second, they present a false picture of a case to the general public. Furthermore, because the modern grand jury process is little more than yet another prosecutorial tool, the independence of this once-important body having been fatally compromised, such leaks clearly violate the constitutional protections of a fair trial for defendants.

Again, defenders of the media will claim that the media simply is performing its duties of "the public's right to know," but one must ask the simple question, "Know what?"  If the media is presenting a false picture—and aiding and abetting a prosecutorial agent of the state in the commission of a felony—then we should ask whether or not journalists willingly are helping the state to lie.

The Stewart case is only one tiny example. As any reporter knows, U.S. attorneys on a regular basis illegally leak information to the press, which dutifully reports it as the unvarnished truth. By empowering the prosecution, the press is not protecting individuals but rather is creating an atmosphere in which government employees can readily break the law and be untouchable at the same time.

Perhaps the most shameful episode of the mainstream press aiding and abetting government crimes was in the 1993 massacre at Waco, Texas, when government agents used tanks and poison gas against a group of religious dissidents, resulting in the deaths of 80 persons, many of them elderly people, women and children. While some courageous journalists like Dan Gifford were able to use alternative means to point out what happened, the journalistic mainstream, and especially the New York Times, Time Magazine, and The Washington Post fell into lockstep with the Clinton Administration, the FBI, and the ATF in presenting their spin on the affair. To this day, only one government agent has been prosecuted in this matter, an ATF employee who shredded some documents.

There is a reason for such shameful behavior. First, most mainstream journalists are True Believers in the efficacy of the welfare state and believe that the increase of the size and scope of government is a good thing. Thus, they do their best to call for expansion of government. Second, given the nature of news coverage, it is inevitable that journalists will spend most of their time covering government agencies. This was true when I was a newspaper reporter more than 25 years ago and the situation has not changed. Therefore, most of the important news sources that successful journalists will cultivate work for the government, which means that the mainstream press and the state have a symbiotic relationship that cannot be good for the pursuit of a free society.

Another important source of state-worshiping sources for journalists come from organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and a number of nonprofit organizations that lobby for state funds. Ralph Nader's hydra-headed groups, environmental organizations, and trial lawyers suing businesses also are important sources for modern mainstream journalists. Thus, we saw NBC News using trial lawyers to rig a crash test involving GM trucks, and presenting it as truth (only to be exposed by GM in a lawsuit). The one thing that these groups have in common is that they believe private enterprise is evil and that the reach and scope of the state must be expanded.

At the same time, however, modern technology has made it easier for filmmakers to produce documentaries that tend to go against the mainstream press/government line, and the Internet has provided a haven for people who are willing to look elsewhere for their news. And while this is a hopeful development, it does not negate the fact that modern journalists and government have become partners—to the detriment of the rest of us who must bear the costs of Leviathan.

In the end, no one from ABC will face charges for smuggling harmless depleted uranium to this country. However, I also have no doubt that ABC News in the future will be a vehicle to help railroad to prison a hapless business executive or investor who engaged in something with no intention of defrauding anyone or breaking the law. After all, nothing can get in the way of a good news story.

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William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive