The Fourth Estate has never been under as much pressure in the United States as it has been under the Obama administration. On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration, thanks to a vigorous and independent U.S. press, many journalists have openly wondered how today’s corporate-controlled and increasingly-beleaguered independent media would have handled the Watergate affair. Many journalists have rightly concluded that today’s press would have given Nixon and his administration a free pass and there would have been no investigation, impeachment, or presidential resignation.
Across the United States journalists are facing pressures from the government and corporations that would have been unheard of forty years ago. After leaks from unnamed government sources about the decision-making process in carrying out targeted assassinations using drones and details of the Stuxnet and Flame computer malware and the use of Flame in spying on Iranian computers in the CIA’s Operation Olympic Games, Attorney General Eric Holder has opened a criminal investigation into the leaks. Journalists are not immune to being hauled before federal grand juries by Justice Department prosecutors to reveal their sources under oath.
New York Times reporter Jim Risen is facing the government’s appeal of an earlier federal court decision to quash his subpoena to reveal his source or sources. In his book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” Risen revealed the CIA’s Operation Merlin, a program to sabotage components of Iran’s nuclear power program. The Holder Justice Department, acting to protect the Bush administration program, wants Risen to testify on the guilt of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling as the source for the information. Sterling has been indicted by a grand jury under the arcane 1917 Espionage Act, which is being used to prosecute other leakers of alleged classified information and as a weapon to keep other potential government whistleblowers silent.
As newspapers fold or decrease their publication to a few days a week, the first victims of downsizing are newspaper investigative reporting staff. BP, busy using a host of public relations firms to lie about the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil disaster on the Gulf coast’s fishing and tourism industries must have breathed a sigh of relief over news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune was reducing their publication schedule to three days a week. The first casualties, as it is with all downsizing newspapers, were investigative reporters, some of whom had been covering the oil disaster cover-up by BP officials, contractors, and politicians who had received huge campaign contributions from the oil company. The same downsizing affected the investigative reporting of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, where reporters who could have shed light on the backgrounds of Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s former White House chief of staff), and Obama policy adviser Valerie Jarrett found themselves without jobs due to cut-backs.
As the U.S. State Department had the unmitigated gall to mark World Press Freedom Day with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bemoaning the alleged lack of press freedom in nations like Russia, China, Cuba, and other countries, while the United States fell to 47th place in the Reporters Without Borders’s annual survey of press freedoms around the world. The United States fell just behind Comoros and Taiwan in the ranking. Cited as one of the major reasons for the drop from 22nd place the year before was the arrest of scores of journalists – broadcast, print, web, blogging, and live streaming — at Occupy Wall Street protests across the United States. At the NATO summit in Chicago, other journalists were arrested or intimidated by baton- and gun-wielding Chicago police officers.
In an election year in which Obama is running for re-election, Mrs. Clinton’s outrage at the treatment of journalists abroad while ignoring the effects her president’s policies are having on American journalists brings to mind the lyrics of the song “Unmitigated Gall” by Faron Young:
“Well, how can you have the unmitigated gall
To come back now, expecting me to fall?”
Even local interest reporting in being stymied by the government-corporate fascist regime that has seized control of America. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, the Illinois Eavesdropping Act makes it a felony to record the actions of a police officer, including the wrongful arrest of protesters, without their consent. Journalists filming protests and police actions, face up to 15 years in prison merely for doing their jobs and informing the public about the actions of tax payer-funded civil servants like the police.
At a forum on Capitol Hill in Washington, In These Times reporter Mike Elk had a microphone ripped from his hands and was illegally detained by a Honeywell official after he asked Honeywell CEO David Cote about his firm’s anti-union policies and a radioactive leak of gas from a Honeywell uranium plant in Metropolis, Illinois. Cote is a friend and supporter of President Obama. Capitol police later asked Elk if he wished to press charges against Honeywell’s public relations spokesman Nick Ferris for unlawful detention.
Recently, former CBS Radio and Scripps-Howard reporter Bob Powell was arrested by Alpena County, Michigan for investigating a mysterious explosion that shook homes in northeastern Michigan. The explosions were believed to have originated from the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, an Air National Guard facility. So much for the public’s right to know.
Earlier this year, U.S. House of Representatives Republicans ordered U.S. Capitol police to detain documentarian Josh Fox and his crew from filming a hearing on environmentally-damaging natural gas fracking. The Republicans also denied access to the hearing to an ABC news crew who planned to film the hearing. In Pennsylvania, gas fracking companies, including Range Resources, have employed veterans of U.S. military psychological warfare operations against journalists and public advocates opposed to fracking. These companies have engaged in such operations with the tacit support of Pennsylvania’s pro-fracking Republican administration.
During the Gulf oil disaster, a CBS News crew was threatened with arrest by U.S. Coast Guard personnel who were clearly taking their orders from BP officials.
Such incidents, without the “bully pulpit” of the White House to stress that the current administration supports the First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press, makes Obama, Holder, and the rest of his administration culpable in infringing on the right of journalists to investigate and question their government on behalf of the citizenry.
Too often, what passes for the press in the United States, the corporation-fed journalists who make up the official “press corps,” finds it more important to gain access to White House and other official government soirees and public relations events in return for their acquiescence. The press would rather engage in polite banter with the President than tackle the overwhelming evidence of government crimes against the general public at home and abroad.
Investigative journalists in Washington have resorted to using counter-intelligence operations to protect their sources, including removing batteries from cell phones during personal interviews with government sources, using back-up meeting locations, and forcing sources who value the independent media to become “Deep Throats” meeting their journalist contacts in clandestine locations.
America in 2012 is a country the Founders of the nation would barely recognize.