Investigation

When Mainstream Media Back the Wrong Side

Then the press becomes lapdog instead of watchdog.

The U.S. Government often persecutes whistleblowers who expose its wrongdoings. Such high-handedness is understandable, given that the revelations by whistleblowers can be embarrassing. The media, however, are supposed to keep an eye on the three branches of government, uncovering corruption by public servants and in the corporate world, then bringing it to the public’s attention. Americans, therefore, have a right to be disturbed when noted journalistic institutions side with the wrongdoers rather than the whistleblowers.

In June 2013, for example, David Gregory, then host of NBC’s Meet the Press, tried to “kill the messenger” when he assailed journalist Glenn Greenwald on the show for being the primary journalist who reported about the National Security Agency’s unconstitutional surveillance schemes, which were brought to light by Edward Snowden. Gregory took a belligerent tone, then asked Greenwald: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”

Greenwald responded, “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. … 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. And it’s precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States. It’s why The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer said, ‘Investigative reporting has come to a standstill,’ her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced.”

Many in the media assailed Snowden as a traitor, including New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, as well as Walter Pincus, The Washington Post’s national security reporter. Pincus wrote a column that proposed a theory in which Julian Assange and WikiLeaks had conspired with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to mastermind the Snowden revelations.

When Mainstream Media Back the Wrong Side
Times changeWhistleblowers used to be celebrated for bringing the truth to light, but today they are likely to be called informants as reflected in the 2002 cover of Time “The Whistleblowers,” and the 2013 cover, “The Informers.”

However, civil rights activists, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, proclaimed Snowden to be a hero. Ellsberg told Snowden he had been waiting 40 years for someone like him to come along. As had Assange, Snowden sought asylum from foreign governments to evade arrest and deportation to the United States, where he felt he would be unable to receive a fair trial. Snowden wound up settling in Russia after Secretary of State John Kerry revoked his passport while Snowden was in Moscow attempting to complete travel from Hong Kong to South America.

Snowden came under fire from the media again after the Paris terrorist attacks in November. Similar to the way President Nixon’s aides accused Ellsberg of being a Soviet spy who caused American deaths by exposing the Pentagon Papers, various news outlets asserted that Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s data collection had undermined the West’s counter-terrorism intelligence gathering. MSNBC gave former CIA Director James Woolsey a platform to make this allegation. Greenwald, however, came to Snowden’s defense again, writing in The Intercept that such accusations were “based on no evidence or specific proof of any kind, needless to say, but just the unverified, obviously self-serving assertions of government officials.”

In 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb revealed the CIA’s involvement in America’s crack-cocaine epidemic, and the media pounced on Webb. He drew from declassified documents, federal court testimony and interviews for his “Dark Alliance” series to reveal how drug-ring money, much of it coming from Los Angeles, had been funneled to the CIA-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

In 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb revealed the CIA’s involvement in America’s crack-cocaine epidemic, and the media pounced on Webb.

The series sent shock waves throughout the country, but The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times made concerted efforts to debunk Webb’s reporting. Having been scooped on a story in their own backyard, the Los Angeles Times assigned 17 reporters to the task.

“We did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California,” reporter Jesse Katz told journalist Nick Schou in 2013. Schou’s book about Webb, Kill the Messenger, exposed the attacks on Webb and how he was exonerated by a 1998 CIA Inspector General report that revealed the agency had covered up its business relationship with Nicaraguan drug dealers.

“The L.A. Times, New York Times and Washington Post buried the IG’s report; under L.A. Times editor Michael Parks, the paper didn’t acknowledge its release for months,” Schou wrote in L.A. Weekly. Sadly, Webb was in effect hounded out of journalism, then he committed suicide in 2004.

The Washington Post’s Pincus had helped lead the attack on Webb, too, co-writing a story titled, “The CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking of Contra-Tied Plot.” Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch pointed out Pincus’ bias in a 2004 column after Webb’s suicide, writing, “Connections between Walter Pincus and the intelligence sector are long-standing and well-known. From 1955 to 1957, he worked for US Army Counter-Intelligence in Washington, D.C.,” and they stated that The Washington Times had described Pincus as a person “who some in the Agency refer to as ‘the CIA’s house reporter.’”

Even when the media hasn’t attacked whistleblowers directly, certain members of its ranks have been complicit in those attacks. New York Times reporter Judith Miller, for example, helped to cover up a Bush regime leak of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to punish Plame’s whistleblowing diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson. He had traveled to Iraq in 2002 to investigate the White House’s claim that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. He debunked the story in a 2003 New York Times op-ed article. A week later, conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak published a story revealing Plame’s identity, saying she had been the one who recommended sending Wilson to Iraq. Miller, whose reporting had aided the Bush administration in building the case for the Iraq War, was also given Plame’s identity by Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. Though her story did not run, Miller spent 85 days in jail because she did not reveal her source. Journalist Greg Palast took Miller to task on his site, writing “The Times should have run the story with the headline: BUSH OPERATIVE COMMITS FELONY TO PUNISH WHISTLEBLOWER.” Palast framed Miller’s complicity in the affair as treasonous, adding, “Miller’s real crime is not concealing a source, but burying the story.”