“The art of printing secures us against the retrogradation of reason and information.”
In an age in which government secrecy is becoming normalized, freedom of the press, a principle guaranteed by the first amendment, is more important than ever.
But a terrible shift has taken place: Not only are we no longer encouraging whistleblowers and journalists to break important stories and to tell us what the government is doing behind closed doors, we (we meaning the government and, strangely, many journalists themselves) are now calling them criminals, condemning them as traitors, and wondering how many years they should spend behind bars.
To make matters worse: While the government’s veil of secrecy is nearly impenetrable, they also hold the ability to spy, without warrants, on millions of American citizens, most of whom have done nothing to suggest that they are committing a crime.
Instead of trying to fix the problems exposed by whistleblowers, we are only focused on prosecuting the whistleblowers themselves, putting no effort into fixing the fundamental issues?
Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are condemned by the government as traitors; but what does that make the government itself, now knowing that they were committing crimes while behind their wall of secrecy?
President Barack Obama righteously praised whistleblowers during his campaign for the presidency, claiming that they commit acts of courage and patriotism, but as Glenn Greenwald never hesitates to point out, the Obama administration has launched the “most aggressive and vindictive assault on whistleblowers of any president in American history, as even political magazines generally supportive of him have recognized and condemned.”
So, the government can know who we’re talking to, when and where we are talking to them, what we are saying. They can read our emails, spy on our social media activities, and accumulate our search records; and much more.
But we, the people, are not permitted to know certain important facts about the government, our government.
And the secrecy has unfortunately become easy to justify.
In the wake of the tragedies of 9/11, panic struck and people were rightfully worried about future attacks, so it was easy for government officials to justify heinous violations of the Constitution and basic values, utilizing methods such as spying, torture, and declaring war in Iraq under false pretenses, which has since extracted over $1 trillion from the taxpayers’ pockets.
There is no doubt that some level of secrecy is necessary for national security reasons. But we have come to a point at which every government secret is withheld “for our own good.” And those who dare to take the first step to let the American people know what their government is doing are called unpatriotic and even treasonous.
The Founding Fathers would be dismayed.
A sound democracy depends on an educated citizenry. And to become educated, the citizenry needs information.
Without robust freedom of the press, without whistleblowers, and without courageous journalists willing to challenge establishment dogmas, our so-called democracy is really just totalitarianism in a clever disguise.
“This formidable censor of the public functionaries, by arraigning them at the tribunal of public opinion, produces reform peaceably, which must otherwise be done by revolution.
It is also the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral, and social being.”
“Intellectual cowardice,” wrote George Orwell, “is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.”
This cowardice is now forcefully imposed upon journalists and whistleblowers via the threat of prosecution for the act of exposing crimes committed by political institutions and their high-ranking officials.
The government can break the law, trample on our most fundamental rights, and commit horrifying acts of criminality completely out of the sight of the people, behind a veil of secrecy, without retribution.
And none of this can even hope to be exposed without support of a free press, and journalists willing to put this freedom to use in a productive way, moving beyond the pro-status quo sound-bites offered by the mainstream media.
Thomas Jefferson, probably the most fierce advocate of a free press among the Founders, understood how important this was over 200 years ago; and his words still ring true, perhaps even more so today than when they were written.
Jefferson on the Necessity of a Free Press
A Free Press “Keeps the Waters Pure”
Without checks on the words of high-ranking political officials, without anyone daring to question what is said in debates, interviews, and speeches, the doors are open for deception on a massive scale.
We know from experience that humans will abuse power if they are unchecked, and one of the great powers of humanity is the ability to deceive through language.
So, that is the real job of a free press: To keep the waters pure, to ensure that politicians aren’t dumping their sewage into the eyes of the public.
Unfortunately, so-called investigative journalists and the mainstream media are becoming more and more beholden to corporate interests, and they are beginning to walk in lockstep with establishment views.
We need muckrakers and rogue journalists, those who don’t care about being ostracized by the mainstream, and those who are willing to ask the hard questions.
If the biggest media outlets aren’t going to do their duty of checking government power, someone else has to, or the waters will become muddier and muddier, filled with falsehoods and propaganda.
Martyrs for Truth
“To preserve the freedom of the human mind… and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”
Edward Snowden, the man who leaked confidential activities of the National Security Agency to several journalists and news outlets, has said that he could not live with himself if he did not come forward with information he had come across after years of working as a system administrator for the CIA.
“So many of the things we’re told by the government simply aren’t true,” the whistleblower said in an interview with NBC. He simply had to tell his fellow citizens what was happening. And now he has been forced to flee the country, and he has been granted asylum by Russia.
Snowden’s decision to flee was controversial, but the reasoning behind it is less known: Because Snowden is being charged under the Espionage Act, he would not be given a public trial in which he can defend himself in front of a jury.
And, one would imagine that this is precisely what the government would want: A quiet trial where they can control all variables, thereby empowering themselves to shift the narrative as they see fit.
It is a tragedy that we have come to the point where American citizens have to risk their careers, their freedom, and even their lives to tell the public the truth about their government.
But now, that seems to be what it takes.
We need individuals who are willing to radically alter the discourse by offering views that differ from the mainstream. We need individuals and groups who are willing to face persecution for speaking up.
Without this, the echo-chamber of American political conversation becomes more and more secluded, unwilling to allow dissenting voices and ultimately forgetting that their job is to serve the people, not the establishment.
Falsehoods, Withholding Information, and the Public’s Judgement
Today, with technology booming and media sources expanding, there is serious opportunity for the truth to come out, and for courageous citizens to have their voices heard.
On the flip side, however, there is also good chance that the media can be manipulated in ways which are deceptive; there is no doubt, for example, that corporate interests play a significant role in today’s mainstream media.
Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer that an essential aspect of a free press is that all information be made available, so that the public can decide between fact and fiction.
“It is so difficult to draw a clear line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press, that as yet we have found it better to trust the public judgment, rather than the magistrate, with the discrimination between truth and falsehood.
And hitherto the public judgment has performed that office with wonderful correctness.”
While I’m not sure if I share Jefferson’s faith that the public will always come to the right answer given that they are exposed to all of the facts (considering humanity’s ability to self-deceive and to fall prey to confirmation bias, etc.), I don’t see any alternative.
A press or media which withholds important information from the public cannot call itself democratic; for if people are to be able to influence the government in an informed way, they must actually have all of the information necessary to make informed decisions.
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
Withholding information, or disguising falsehoods as confirmed facts, is a mark of totalitarian regimes with a desire to control, not a free society.
“Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint.
The public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions on a full hearing of all parties, and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness.
If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion.”
A government which has a lot to hide will, obviously, be increasingly hesitant to exposure by a free press.
And that is what we are seeing today: Whisteblowers and journalists, instead of being praised for informing the American people, are condemned and chased down by the government more ardently than ever before.
And the media has followed suit, musing about how long they should spend in prison for exposing the illegal acts committed by those in power, instead of discussing the issues which they worked to expose.
This is a truly terrifying trend, one which cannot continue if we wish to uphold whatever is left of our so-called democracy.