National Commentary

Watchdogs of Democracy?

nfbentonpicThe recent weeks’ startling revelations of the extent to which the U.S. National Security Agency has built its database of information about not only virtually all U.S. citizens, but the machinations of foreign governments, including supposed allies, is a real jaw dropper.

But this intrusion into our national “bread and circuses” psychic bliss has caused a notable lack of alarm, thanks in part to the media’s tireless efforts to retrain the public’s focus away from the NSA’s excess, and instead onto the mischievous leaker, Edward Snowden, or 24/7 coverage of a murder trial in Florida.

In times when state secrets are exposed, other secrets often come to light in the process, such as ones about previously unknown loyalties and alliances. It has been enlightening to learn which so-called journalists are being revealed now as mouthpieces for the government they are allegedly tasked to cover.

Take the infamous “Meet the Press” exchange between NBC’s David Gregory and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald on June 23, when Gregory suggested that Greenwald might be accused of “aiding and abetting” a criminal act by reporting some of the material that Snowden leaked.

Greenwald responded forcefully, knocking Gregory on his heels, retorting:

“I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in any way. … If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal.”

After Gregory sputtered, “Well the question of who is a journalist may be up to debate,” NBC’s Chuck Todd defended Gregory, contending that Greenwald should explain how he is involved with Snowden.

Todd only partially redeemed himself by interjecting in a round-table conversation that official procedures available to whistle blowers do not function well.

So-called journalists rushed in subsequent days to spout government lines about how Snowden should give himself up, citing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Daniel Ellsberg as examples. They failed to note that Dr. King was assassinated for his effort, and this week Ellsberg wrote an op-ed, “Snowden Was Right to Run,” siding with Snowden’s decision to stay out of the country.

We’re seeing an unprecedented degree by which “watchdogs of democracy” in the U.S., including the checks and balances historically provided between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and the media as the “fourth estate,” have been cowed and muted in the post-911 era by rogue elements of the executive branch.

It’s not just the excesses of the NSA spying program, it’s the failure of these “watchdogs” to do their job that is the greatest threat to American democracy today.

In 2006, legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas wrote a scathing indictment of her journalistic colleagues in a book called Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.

While she wrote about the incredible importance of a vibrant, truth-centered free press to democracy, she blasted the pliant deference her press colleagues gave to the Bush administration in the post-911 era, especially their uncritical reporting on the lead up to and invasion of Iraq.

(The brave, now 92-year-old Thomas’ subsequent “fall from grace” had its roots in this critique, such that her media colleagues refused to defend her when a political lobby-hyped misrepresentation of comments she made were taken out of context in 2010.)

Consider the media bias in going after Snowden, while giving National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper Jr. a complete pass despite his open and brazen lies to Congress. (Wasn’t the Iran-Contra scandal rooted in lying to Congress?)

One thing for sure: David Gregory ilk are no journalists. They are celebrity mouthpieces who do what they’re told. Journalists are those who work with a passion for truth, like Thomas and the team headed by Eric Lichtblau that pieced together an original blockbuster expose of the NSA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court in last Sunday’s New York Times.