How the government creates compliant journalists

Dan Froomkin said in an ealier post that “the elite press gets tighter and tighter with those to whom it should be adversarial”. This failing seems to be most pronounced within the community of ‘national security’ reporters who seem to be particularly prone to try and be friends with the people they cover and act as mouthpieces for them. One of the most notorious is Dina Temple-Raston of NPR whose failings I have chronicled many times. In his book Goliath, Max Blumenthal gives case after case of how Israeli reporters report as facts what the Israeli national security establishment tells them and essentially become part of the propaganda system.

In a subsequent post, Froomkin publishes a revealing series of emails between Ken Dilanian of the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times and the CIA’s public relations officer, that reveal how the former curried favor with the latter by promising to write a story that would make them look good.

“I’m working on a story about congressional oversight of drone strikes that can present a good opportunity for you guys,” Dilanian wrote in one email to a CIA press officer, explaining that what he intended to report would be “reassuring to the public” about CIA drone strikes. In another, after a series of back-and-forth emails about a pending story on CIA operations in Yemen, he sent a full draft of an unpublished report along with the subject line, “does this look better?” In another, he directly asks the flack: “You wouldn’t put out disinformation on this, would you?”

If anyone decides to go into the profession of investigative journalism, they have to make a stark choice. Either you depend on self-serving leaks from highly placed sources for your ‘scoops’ and stories and thus become essentially a mouthpiece for the government or you burn those bridges and do painstaking research and document analyses and cultivate lower-level whistleblowers who are interested in getting the truth out because they still retain a sense that they are working for the greater public good.

This has been fairly obvious for some time now but David Sirota writes that government agencies are becoming even more obvious about their desire to co-opt journalists. This is part of their general effort to hide their activities even from internal government watchdog agencies.

As states move to hide details of government deals with Wall Street, and as politicians come up with new arguments to defend secrecy, a study released earlier this month revealed that many government information officers block specific journalists they don’t like from accessing information. The news comes as 47 federal inspectors general sent a letter to lawmakers criticizing “serious limitations on access to records” that they say have “impeded” their oversight work.

The data about public information officers was compiled over the past few years by Kennesaw State University professor Dr. Carolyn Carlson. Her surveys found that 4 in 10 public information officers say “there are specific reporters they will not allow their staff to talk to due to problems with their stories in the past.”

In recent years, there have been signs that the federal government is reducing the flow of public information. Reason Magazine has reported a 114 percent increase in Freedom of Information Act rejections by the Drug Enforcement Agency since President Obama took office. The National Security Agency has also issued blanket rejections of FOIA requests about its metadata program. And the Associated Press reported earlier this year that in 2013, “the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year.”

Those revelations foreshadowed a recent letter from more than half of the government’s inspectors general saying that federal agencies’ move to hide information from them represents a “potentially serious challenge to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”

Government agencies at the state and local levels are now adopting this co-opting/stonewalling strategy, seeing how well it has worked at the national level.


  1. ShowMetheData says

    Reminds me about Canadian reporter Claire Hoys’ discussion of press inside/outside functioning

    If you are inside, you get a steady stream of small, internal details and discussions about what the government will decide. You can offer some service to readers.

    But that won’t help you when there are embarrassing big failures. At one point or other, for these issues, the reporter is going to have to burn his inside sources. And you can’t trade your past subservience, after your burn, for a continuing inside relationship.
    When to burn? For the subservient reporters, the self-deception of accepting the small game means they can do reporter-like functions and merely look like a reporter.

  2. says

    It would be nice for someone to compile a list of known ‘mouthpeice journalists’ and let that list become a cultural ‘known’… It would seriously undermine their reputations and as long as the accusations were backed by solid evidence, they wouldn’t be able to ‘move forward’ with their careers w/o addressing it

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