To Reader: This is a slightly altered version from that which appeared in the Prague Post a few days ago. And I am actively considering revamping and expanding it for the blog, as I feel the subject merits more than a 1200 word max limit.
While there can be no question of the transparency value of all those primary documents that Julian Assange splashed out to the public through Wikileaks a few years ago now, nor of the immense importance of the Snowden revelations in coming to grips with the staggering implications that the Five Eyes global secrets stalking represents for democracy and privacy, an aspect often under-appreciated is the gatekeeper crisis that all these startling eye-openers have brought with them. Fact is, while the hidden gods are having their merry way with Words, it’s virtually impossible to know which oracle to trust any more.
And there are all kinds of oracles these days. There’s the mainstream media, which includes what’s left of the Press; there’s the Assange prototype of open media based on posting sensitive documents; there’s the Greenwald selective leak method; there’s Google’s Erich Schmidt calling for a kind of committee to oversee leak distribution; and then there’s Stephen Aftergood’s Secrecy News which publishes important governmental documents that get suppressed through willful underpublicizing. It’s worth briefly considering the pros and cons of each method.
It seems more evident all the time that the mainstream media has lost its way in the frontier wilderness of the digital age. There was a time when media were deeply respected as the so-called Fourth Estate, which took serious the public interest, and advocated on its behalf by aggressive reporting and adversarial coverage of government policies. Or, at least, that’s what we told ourselves. But those days are largely gone, more and more people are looking to alternate sources for information about government operations because they don’t sense that the MSM is independent of corporate ownership or telling everything it should in its championing of transparency.
Where the MSM has failed most miserably is in the reporting of foreign affairs, the War on Terror, and the rise of the national security state, which has engulfed every American –not just ‘terrorists’– with its all-pervasive surveillance system, like a Stasi erotic dream. It hasn’t been much better chasing down the howling wolves of Wall Street. Unfortunately, for the MSM, these issues are the most pressing of our time.
But there have been many low points. One could argue that the coverage of the 2000 presidential election debacle was downright craven, for instance. But perhaps the nadir is the 2004 presidential pre-election suppression by the New York Times, at the Bush White House’s request, of evidence that the NSA was wiretapping Americans illegally. The disappointment here was palpable, the trust forever gone.
Enter Julian Assange whose wicked leaks were a welcome shock to a system built on suppression and spying, and served to remind all intelligent adults of the significant gulf between real politik propaganda and real knowledge of political processes at work. I actually favor the publication of these primary documents that detail operations, as they are often disillusioning in the best possible way.
However, as much as one admires Assange’s chutzpah, his editorialized version of the Collateral Murder video, with its intentional manipulation of viewer response, points up the peril of a having someone with an anarchic disposition in charge of a totally ‘open’ system. Assange was benign with his political version of Collateral Murder, and I respect what he was hoping to achieve, but not every future hacktivist will be as scrupled or have all his oars in the water. A totally open system seems rife for disturbing levels of mischief.
A more problematical gatekeeper is Glenn Greenwald and his selective leaking. This wasn’t much of a problem before Edward Snowden came along and dramatically altered the public’s understanding of the scope and unbridled power of the Five Eyes at work.
But many people who admired Greenwald’s blogs were disillusioned when, following the sensation of his Snowden write-ups, he suddenly jumped ship from the mainstream Guardian, where he was reaching just the kinds of people needing consciousness-raising, to sideline himself for months in order to build a new journalism venture. But more at issue was the Snowden leaks treasure trough, which he brought with him to First Media, and his decision to leak selectively, rather than in a Wikileaks splash fashion.
In effect, he became the Master Gatekeeper for confidential intelligence whose revelations have so far have proven to be of extraordinary public interest. For many people, this meant that the public was right back to where it was when it gave up on the MSM – not knowing what Greenwald was leaving out (although it’s hard to imagine how it could get much more revelatory than the Prism and XKeyscore programs) and having to implicitly trust in Greenwald’s good will and judgment.
But that was exactly the problem some people had with the arrangement; trusting Greenwald’s judgment; not everyone adores him. In my own estimation, though his moral integrity and legal erudition seem beyond dispute, he has had lapses of judgment that seriously call into question his viability as a gatekeeper of the world’s most important leaks. For instance, though Greenwald has every right to make a buck of fhis book, Nowhere To Hide, which leverages his Snowden encounters, it was startling to see his Amazon listing with a “special offer” that would provide readers with a discount if they applied and got approved for an Amazon-financed, JP Morgan Chase Bank vetted credit card.
In short, Greenwald was enticing his readership to hand over its personal data to the very corporates Greenwald has railed against in the past. Wouldn’t the government just love to have those details of Greenwald’s readers – people of interest if there ever were? And, jeez, what would happen if that data got lost or stolen?
Admirable writer and fierce advocate of the rule of law though he may be, it’ difficult to trust the judgement of someone’s data leak decisions when their own personal handling of data leaves so much to be desired.
Another form of gatekeeping is that advocated by Google’s Erich Schmidt, who has called for a kind of oversight committee to review whistleblower leaks with a view to making sure they are ‘responsible’ leaks that dock rock the ship of State too much. Of course, Schmidt has in mind elite corporate overseers like himself with all his algorithims of power. The problem with this idea, if it’s not immediately obvious, is that would be akin to Henry Kissinger overseeing the 9/11 Commission, which nearly happened – except he was chased out of town with the torches-and-pitchfork roars of public outrage. Ditto for Schmidtty.
There is no question that when the Fourth Estate abrogated its implicit authority to act as advocate for the people, and, through adversarial posturing, force government to behave with the highest degree of transparency that a healthy democracy requires, it not only helped foment the present crisis of trust, but shot itself in the foot and has accelerated the demise of the Press, whose relevancy in the digital age was already underway.
Probably, as some observers have suggested, we are in for a prolonged period of news fragmentation and decentralization, with people choosing their favorite oracles to receive revelations from, leading to an eventual ‘failed state’ confusion that, naturally, will find the masses looking to the State propagandists for soothing themes, memes, and metaphors: Gatekeepers at the barbed wire fence. Hell, we may already be there. I can hear the vicious dogmas barking and fighting over some old bone of contention.