Our subservient media

News reports have emerged that the US has been using a base in Saudi Arabia to launch its drone attacks in the region. What is most interesting is that big media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have known about this for more than a year but rrefrained from publishing it at the request of the government.

The usual reasons given for this kind of secrecy are that it would jeopardize counter-terrorism operations and also embarrass an important ally and make it a target of reprisals. But the existence of this base was reported in the international media a long time ago, with The Times in the UK writing about it as far back as July 2011, which means that the only people who were being kept in the dark were the US public, reminiscent of the ‘secret bombings’ of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam war, the revelations of which came as a surprise only to Americans.

Glenn Greenwald points out that this phenomenon of the major US media seeking approval of the government before publishing important stories, and withholding them if asked to do so, is not new and gives example after example, concluding:

There are, of course, instances where newspapers can validly opt to conceal facts that they learn. That’s when the harm that comes from disclosure plainly outweighs the public interest in learning of them (the classic case is when, in a war, a newspaper learns of imminent troop movements: there is no value in reporting that but ample harm from doing so). But none of these instances comes close to meeting that test. Instead, media outlets overwhelmingly abide by government dictates as to what they should conceal. As Greensdale wrote: “most often, they oblige governments by acceding to requests not to publish sensitive information that might jeopardise operations.”

As all of these examples demonstrate, extreme levels of subservience to US government authority is embedded in the ethos of the establishment American media. They see themselves not as watchdogs over the state but as loyal agents of it.

Recall the extraordinary 2009 BBC debate over WikiLeaks in which former NYT executive editor Bill Keller proudly praised himself for concealing information the Obama administration told him to conceal, prompting this incredulous reply from the BBC host: “Just to be clear, Bill Keller, are you saying that you sort of go to the government in advance and say: ‘What about this, that and the other, is it all right to do this and all right to do that,’ and you get clearance, then?” Keller’s admission also prompted this response from former British diplomat Carne Ross, who was also on the program: “It’s extraordinary that the New York Times is clearing what it says about this with the US Government.

The major US media seems to see its role more as a protector of the government than a watchdog for the public.


  1. invivoMark says

    Okay, I can understand major news outlets being subservient to the government. It pisses me off, but I guess I get it.

    What about blogs and independent news sources? Why weren’t they all over that stuff? Why weren’t they all over the major news networks’ self-imposed silence on the issue?

    As much as the Internet may have dropped the ball in this instance, this tells very strikingly how absolutely necessary Internet neutrality is. Imagine if the US were as bad as China for blocking foreign websites! We MUST NOT allow that to happen.

  2. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    Well, which blogs, invivoMark? Not every blog is going to cover what comes across foreign (not-US, in this case) news desks. I’m sure plenty have. I’ve certainly seen it in many other cases, not just with blogs, but other independent news sources using internet, radio, and even print.

    It’s just that not every story of interest becomes huge enough for everyone to notice in an ocean sea of content.

  3. invivoMark says

    I agree.

    I don’t know which blogs ought to have covered something like this, as I don’t care for blogs which focus on that sort of thing (Mano’s is as close as I get). However, I’m increasingly of the opinion that major news outlets, at least in the US, are entirely untrustworthy and outdated. There are foreign news outlets, such as the BBC, which I would much prefer to get my news from, and if I followed a current-events-focused blog, I would certainly expect its author(s) to at least partially share in my distrust, and get their information from a variety of referenced sources.

    It’s quite possible that the “censorship” of this particular event was more a result of not being particularly surprising or newsworthy. In that case, nobody can really be considered to have “dropped the ball”, as I said; but the point about the paramount importance of net neutrality remains.

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