The recent arrest of a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member—a veteran of almost 30 years in government service—on charges of lying to FBI agents investigating leaks of classified information surprised some. However, what really churned the waters was the concurrent seizure of the phone and email records of The New York Times reporter to whom he had been allegedly leaking—but with whom he was most definitely having sex. They don’t call Washington “The Swamp” for nothing.
This incident and so many like it speak to the inherent tension between government secrecy and a free press in a democracy. That which government would prefer remains hidden has always been catnip for reporters, but it appears more and more the case that a symbiotic and worrisome relationship has developed between those in government and those working in the press—each seemingly tethered to fewer and fewer institutional norms or traditions. Given that government cannot operate effectively in a glass house, both the leakers and those reporters who are anxious to disseminate secrets are playing a dangerous game that could have catastrophic consequences.
We generally find government information falls into three broad categories.
First, we have information that can and should be made readily available to all: the cost of contracts, specific legislative and regulatory actions, court rulings, or initiatives of the Executive branch are obvious examples of information that is critical to the smooth functioning of democratic processes. There are also categories of information that need to be carefully evaluated before they are made public; troop movements in wartime and active criminal investigations are obvious examples. We don’t want to either compromise military operations and put lives at risk or allow crooks to escape before they can be apprehended and put on trial.
There remains, however, a third category of information that causes the most practical and ideological problems in an open and democratic society: that which cannot be revealed under any circumstances without causing perhaps irreversible harm to our nation and its people.
The very existence of this final category of information is offensive to those who believe in absolute government transparency and deeply distrust the idea of government secrecy. It must be acknowledged that the United States government—like every government in history—has sometimes tried to drop a veil of secrecy over information that would reveal neglect, malfeasance, or plain stupidity. The question then arises whether revealing this information serves any public good or just causes further damage by either unnecessarily eroding public trust or politicizing what are, in the final analysis, nothing more than instances of human weakness or misjudgment.
Likely the two most famous examples of closely-held secrets revealed during the course of my own lifetime are the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers”, which allowed the general public to read the unvarnished political and military deliberations concerning the conduct of the Vietnam War, and the revelations surrounding President Nixon’s role in encouraging spying upon—and sabotage of—his political opponents, which led to his impeachment and resignation.
In both of these cases the news media decided that our country and our citizens were best served by revealing the secrets and lies of our government officials. We saw a long-term drop in our faith in government as a result—which is either healthy or harmful, depending on your point of view—but the issues at hand were clearly pertinent to both public policy and the operations of democratic government, so we needed to know the truth. However, the facts associated with each case had far-reaching and long-term consequences for our country, so the editorial decisions to publicize this information were made only after long and careful internal deliberations concerning the complex balance between press freedom and our national interests.
That was then—and this is now.
Over the past 30-40 years journalistic standards have joined floppy disks on the scrap heap of history. Our internet-driven 24/7 news cycle has produced a crazed bazaar of half-truths and one-sided opinions presented as facts. As articles regarding personalities and perceptions—and snarky reactions to both—have continued to crowd out simple reporting in the quest for clickbait, any sense of proportion and decency has more and more been discarded. Hence, “news” has devolved into just one more facet of our wacky entertainment culture rather than an enterprise where careful fact-checking and an unbiased presentation—combined with a deeply entrenched sense of reportorial responsibility—are considered normal and laudable.
Imagine, for example, if our current journalistic practices had been in place in the past. Would the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs during World War II, have stayed off the front pages of The Washington Post for long? Would news websites be breathlessly reporting every twist and turn of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on leaks and the wildest unsubstantiated speculation—thereby driving our world even closer to the brink of nuclear war? On a less elevated level, would some mistress of President Kennedy be providing a slurp by slurp account of their liaisons to 60 Minutes or The Tonight Show—perhaps while simultaneously hawking her new web store with its own line of “Presidential” lingerie for sale?
We need a responsible and inquiring press in a democracy—and many news outlets are still doing important investigative reporting that provides necessary accountability for government and government officials. However, the disdain much of the American public feels toward journalism and journalists—which President Trump channels and amplifies for his own political purposes—is a direct outcome of the damage done by reporters who have turned themselves into partisans and provocateurs in order to advance their own careers.
There is an old saying in Washington: “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.” We can add a codicil to this saying that is both a reflection of today’s reality and a warning: “and the public doesn’t know why so much talk leaves them knowing nothing at all….”