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When Government Manipulates Press and Public, and the Press Plays Along

| November 13, 2014

A bit less august than you might think. (Alexander Torrenegra)

A bit less august than you might think. (Alexander Torrenegra)

There’s an interesting editorial in The Times this morning where The Times appears to take a tough stance against China, which has refused to approve visas for Times reporters since the paper reported on China’s moneyed elites. This is the fifth paragraph of the editorial: “The Times has no intention of altering its coverage to meet the demands of any government — be it that of China, the United States or any other nation. Nor would any credible news organization. The Times has a long history of taking on the American government, from the publication of the Pentagon Papers to investigations of secret government eavesdropping.”

pierre tristam flaglerlive editor's blogWhat I found interesting about the last line was the part about the eavesdropping. You may recall that in December 2005 the Times broke the story about the NSA’s illegal domestic spying. It was written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. What the editorial in today’s paper doesn’t tell you is that twice the Times killed the story, which Risen had originally finished at the end of Bush’s first term, before the election he narrowly won against Kerry.

What the Times doesn’t say in the editorial is that then-NSA Director Michael Hayden and Bush themselves intervened to kill the story, and Bill Keller, the executive editor at the time, went along. Twice. Bush and his people claimed the story would damage the country’s efforts to fight the war on terror—the usual bullshit we now know, thanks to Snowden, to have been a cover for illegal spying on an unprecedented scale. And what the Times also doesn’t tell you in that editorial is that the paper agreed to run the story only when Risen informed his editors that he was writing a book (“State of War”) and that he was including the domestic spying story in it. His editors were “furious” at first (Risen’s word), but they didn’t want to be scooped. So they finally, more than a year later, published the article.

In one way, it was one of the Times’s shining moments. In another, it showed the Times to be a patsy, and its handling of the story in my view (and Risen’s) was shameful, especially in light of what it had been doing until then: in the run-up to the Iraq war, Risen was the only reporter at the Times whose stories questioned the whole WMD fantasy and the intelligence community’s cooked up theories on Iraq. His stories were either killed or buried in inside pages, while stories by reporters hyping the WMD danger Iraq posed were front page news—again, following the Bush administration’s lead. Bill Keller has since offered a half-baked mea culpa for all that, albeit tortuously and with too much focus on absolving himself. And of course it’s too late.

I’ve had numerous conversations about the push and pull between press and government with local officials. A running theme, one I heard again in a conversation this morning, is that transparency sometimes trumps accuracy or the good of the community. That of course was the Times’s argument when it killed the Risen stories initially, as it was the Bush administration’s. I’m not saying there is any relationship whatsoever between the nature of the domestic spying story and just about any local stories. But from a reporting perspective—the responsibility of reporting versus government’s desire to control a story, whether it’s our federal government’s, China’s or local government’s—it’s not much different at all.

Government’s arguments almost always come down to presuming that government knows better than readers or reporters what’s best to release, when and how. I don’t believe that’s ever the case, in the sense that it is never government’s role to make those judgments, whether it’s a question of routine local issues or matters of national security of the highest degree. Bush in fact in the last meeting with Keller on the domestic spying story told Keller that he’d have blood on his hands if he went ahead with publication. It goes to show to what ridiculous extent government will attempt to manipulate the press, stopping at nothing.

What happens at the highest levels of government actually happens routinely, probably daily, in state and local government, with stories not remotely related to anything like national security. But the impulse to suppress is the same. People allegedly in charge presume to control and manipulate stories, their timing, their reporting, their slant. It’s not even subtle anymore. I see this here almost weekly with one thing or another, and hardly any of the information being controlled is controversial (except maybe in the minds of the controllers). Supervisor of Elections Kimberle Weeks acts like she’s a law unto herself, manipulating public records in a way that makes you wonder what else she manipulates in her office. The Sheriff’s Office, which has been developing an unhealthy siege mentality in proportion with Sheriff Jim Manfre’s challenges, thinks its internal protocols trump public record laws (witness its manipulations of information about a murder suspect’s stint at the local hospital earlier this month.) Flagler Beach did what it could to keep a settlement with two wrongly fired firefighters from getting out. Even the county administration in the last 24 hours unnecessarily dragged its feet on releasing a committee report on the fate of the old courthouse (although that had more to do with an excusable editing matter than anything to do with keeping the report from circulating).

The sad thing is that the press more often than not collaborate with government even at the highest levels, as the Times-Risen episode shows. That’s what government is used to, especially locally. Every reporter has heard that horror of horrors: “Be a team player.” And too many reporters play along. But the second one does, he’s no longer a reporter but a mouthpiece. We have enough of those in government to deafen us with white noise posing as news.

Here’s the kicker of the Risen story: as soon as he published his book, Bush launched an investigation to find Risen’s leakers. Risen refused to cooperate with the Justice Department and was subpoenaed. When Obama was elected Risen thought he was in the clear. Obama renewed the subpoena instead. Obama, that great liberal, has been the most anti-press president in the nation’s history, charging more people under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. A court of appeals ruled Risen must testify. He’s refusing to. He now faces the possibility of going to jail.

I have no doubt that the majority of the public either doesn’t care or sides with the government, at least on this score.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him on Twitter @PierreTristam.

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9 Responses for “When Government Manipulates Press and Public, and the Press Plays Along”

  1. confidential says:

    Just like in Flagler County government manipulating the press against an honest SOE Mrs Weeks, but finally partial justice arrived via Judge More Stens and SOE removing, as he didn’t want to let go, FCBOCC chairman out of the Canvassing Board….His alternate Ericksen let go too, before the booting.
    Since when the county manager secy takes the minutes of the very sensitive work of the canvassing board(counting and approving or disapproving provisional or unclear ballots) when we have two of their incumbents is the race? Who should run our elections our SOE or the county and city governments fully supporting their incumbents?
    Shame on the county commission chair Hanns doubting of the integrity of our county elections process and also on his commanded manager calling the state to monitor the election for the same reason, something that we poll workers welcomed, while he got egg on his face when Hanns booting was witnessed by the FL inspectors!
    Does anyone care to find out how big the state bill will be for all those inspectors and trips we will have to pay, if so? Or will some serious penalty will be deserved by the victorious incumbent that called the SOE a 5 letter B word? Nothing sure will erase the offense endured by poll workers and our constitutional SOE Mrs. Weeks while doing and honest and dedicated work in the most important event of our USA.
    I am still waiting on the FDLE investigation results, unfortunately based in bogus accusations against the SOE…hopefully they find out the real omen after all. I AM WAITING FDLE! Lets se if we have justice here.

  2. rickg says:

    Excellent piece. This is why I believe Flagler Live deserves our support. Great journalism with pointed insight. And yes Obama is far from a liberal. More like a middle of the road corporatist to me.

  3. confidential says:

    By the way Weeks does not manipulate public records. she shows them as they are without sweeping data under the rug and looks like ruffles many feathers. The properly recorded tape in a public canvassing board meeting made public, the booting of the commission chair finally from the canvassing board and also his alternate, is not manipulating public records Pierre …is the sad reality needed to arrive.
    Hiding the real government intended manipulation of our elections is the real manipulating the public records. We have a brave SOE battling for what is fair and right! As you can see we do not agree on this one.

  4. Lin says:

    Interesting piece, Pierre — a new perspective for me

  5. Outsider says:

    There is a very glaring, recent example illustrating your point quite clearly. The architect of the Affordable Care Act was recently exposed admitting the governemnt lied to the American people to pass this boondoggle of a bill. He actually referred to the “stupidity of the American voter” as a reason for it’s passage. In no less than five videos this is proven as fact, with ample evidence that Obama was in on the act, yet there was nothing from ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and their ilk, at least until it became so obvious that what had occurred that they could no longer ignore the issue. It was only the much maligned Fox News that broke the story, forcing the sycophants in the mainstream to finally acknowledge what we have been saying for years: the left is composed of elitist a who disdain the ordinary citizen and believe they can hood wink us without even realizing it.

  6. nomad says:

    It’s not only American media that is bought and paid for by the American govt. The US govt also has it tentacles in foreign media that it pays to distort truth and project America in a positive light. This is not only shameful but says a lot about a person or country that has to pay for favorable coverage because their reputation and character is beyond disgraceful and despicable…

    “In Ulfkotte’s bestselling book, “Bought Journalism,” he disclosed further cases of how European reporters were bribed to publish misleading reports, and how he was ordered to “to lie and not tell the truth to the public.” During the interview, Ulfkotte said that many articles published under his name were in fact written by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, all with the intent of swaying international public opinion in favor of America. In return, he was invited to travel to the United States and was granted the title of honorary citizen.

    If Snowden blew the whistle on the PRISM “datagate” scandal, which involved data collecting and monitoring, then Ulfkotte certainly exposed the “invisible hand” behind America’s manipulation of international public opinion.”

  7. NortonSmitty says:

    “It’s not only American media that is bought and paid for by the American govt. The US govt also has it tentacles in foreign media that it pays to distort truth…”

    And in the case of the NY Times, certain foreign governments also have their tentacles in our media as well. During Snowdens revelations as well as the recent bloodbath in Gaza, the Times consulted with the Israeli Government consultant, a “Retired” Mossad agent who has an office in their building (!) before printing anything on the subjects.

    “All The News We’re Told is Fit to Print”

  8. Brad says:

    Bravo! Well said.

  9. Sherry Epley says:

    Folks. . . unfortunately it’s not only governments that manipulate the news. . . it’s also the wealthy and the power brokers like Rupert Murdoch who owns FOX (I refuse to call it “News):

    Which makes it essential that each of us do our own research to find the actual truth. Kudos to Pierre for doing his very best to keep us informed with actual facts!

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