Jay Rosen is a professor of Journalism at NYU with a fairly large following, who, like most left media critics, never critiques establishment liberal/left media, and whose anodyne media analysis perpetuates myths about press freedom in the guise of critiquing infringements upon it and who rationalizes the continued hegemony of traditional elite-run media like The Guardian under a veneer of ostensible support for what he calls ‘stateless’ news organizations, like Wikileaks.
So Rosen will happily tweet out some shit written by a shill of shills like Josh Marshall, and even have robust friendly discussions with him online, without once mentioning that Marshall literally gets his talking points straight from the White House. Or he’ll look at Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s trivializing, weird confession of acquiescence to government repression, without even a hint of mystification, let alone disparagement, at how long Rusbridger suppressed this story. To the contrary, in Rosen’s piece about it, Rusbridger’s capitulation to government thugs and his failure to immediately disclose it to his readers, metamorphoses into heroism and prudence, as Rosen extols the overwhelming importance of knowledgeable, responsible journalism elites like Rusbridger to opposing mass surveillance.
Those who would expose and oppose the security state also need good judgment. What to hold back, when not to publish, how not to react when provoked, what not to say in your own defense: alongside the forensic, the demands of the prudential. All day today, people have been asking me: why did The Guardian wait a month to tell us… [Rusbridger’s] answer:
“Having been through this and not written about it on the day for operational reasons, I was sort of waiting for a moment when the government’s attitude to journalism –- when there was an issue that made this relevant,” Rusbridger said.
That moment came after Sunday’s nine-hour airport detainment of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the NSA surveillance story.
“The fact that David Miranda had been detained under this slightly obscure schedule of the terrorism act seemed a useful moment to write about the background to the government’s attitude to this in general,” Rusbridger said.
Hear it? The holding back. The sensation of a political opening, through which the story can be driven. The alignment of argument with information. The clear contrast between a terror anyone can identify with — being detained for nine hours while transiting through a foreign country — and the state’s obscure use of terrorism law. These are political skills, indistinguishable from editorial acumen. In a conspiracy to commit journalism we must persuade as well as inform.
Let’s put aside the idea — much beloved, I’ve found, to even the most radical members of the management class — that we really, really, need super savvy media elites to meticulously shape and temper whistleblowing for the rest of us, and just examine Rosen’s interesting conclusion that Alan Rusbridger, by virtue of his particular ‘prudence’ and ‘acumen’, is supremely qualified for the job.
Dr. Rosen seems far less curious than I am about those ‘operational’ reasons that kept Rusbridger from telling his readers that Cameron’s government had demanded he turn over the files, two months before his bizarre, clueless mea culpa. Nor does Rosen linger at all on Rusbridger’s peculiar claim that once the initial government threats were made — and those ‘operational’ things got in the way of disclosure — there was never another good time to alert his readers to the two months of government harassment that followed. Finally, like far too many others, Rosen is clearly not at all curious about what on earth possessed Rusbridger and his colleagues (Greenwald?) to send David Miranda to Heathrow with 50,000 Snowden documents shortly after Rusbridger had destroyed all the files in the Guardian’s offices on government orders.
It’s times like these when I think about shit like this — about Rusbridger’s capitulation, his failure to disclose, the strange timing of Miranda’s shakedown, and Rosen’s down-is-up defense of it all — that I sincerely wish I were less envious of the magisterial excellence and awe-inspiring courage of these people and could lead a normal left-wing life of uncritically trusting vaguely liberal media elites, instead of smelling bullshit on everything they do and say.
Which brings us around to The Snowden Effect, a buzzphrase Rosen copiously applies to, in his words:
Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.
Meaning: there’s what Snowden himself revealed by releasing secrets and talking to the press. But beyond this, there is what he set in motion by taking that action.
Every time anything related to Snowden’s disclosures comes up, Rosen blows his horn about the Snowden Effect, like this, from yesterday:
Now some of my fellow scare quote radicals admonish Rosen and his Snowden Effect for obviousness, to the effect that, of course, there is going to be a cascading effect to something like Snowden’s whistleblowing, and do the ramifications of a big, ongoing news event really need to be a thing with a name, the main effect of which is a constant flow of self-promoting ‘Look! See!’s like the above. But I dislike this Snowden Effect gimmick not because it’s obvious, but because it’s conception of the news environment and its relationship to everything else is very wrong.
All kinds of remarkable news stories come and go, without any cascading effect on other journalists, or corporations, or the government or the public. Let’s just look at Snowden’s NSA predecessors: where was the Russell Tice effect? The Thomas Drake effect? The William Binney effect?
What was the cascading effect of this detailed and fascinating Washington Post series from 2010, Top Secret America?
Where was the Manning effect on American foreign policy discussion?
Yes, I know, I know, I know, we’re all focused on the NSA now because of the meticulous selection of documents, the precision timing of the disclosures and the brilliantly deft handling of the news cycle.
Fine. But can we just pause for a moment to consider that we inhabit a marketplace of ideas where third party candidates get handcuffed to chairs in warehouses while the ‘serious’ candidates debate? Where single payer was almost unmentionable during a lengthy debate on a federal health insurance program? Where a cable news host who expresses misgivings about the word ‘hero’ is bullied into saying that as a civilian, he has no right to such opinions? Can we just consider all of that, alongside the facts of media ownership, momentarily, or does that sit too uneasily with the David and Goliath story far too many people want so desperately to believe in?
Yes, there are all kinds of ‘effects’ like ‘The Snowden Effect’ that radiate out from big news events. One could say, for instance, that there was a Trayvon Martin Effect, where more space opened up to discuss ongoing oppression and violence against African Americans. But you could not say there was a Ramarley Graham Effect or an Oscar Grant effect, following the murders of those African American men by cops. There was no Abdulrahman Al Awlaki Effect. There was no Ibragim Todashev Effect, after FBI agents murdered Todashev during questioning about the Boston Bombing. There was no Aaron Swartz effect after that young activist hanged himself in the midst of hounding by Federal prosecutors. There was no rippling news and policy effect from the leaking of Department of Homeland Security documents detailing widespread surveillance of Occupy encampments and individual protesters.
The problems with The Snowden Effect are the implication that a piece of news is inherently durable on its own merits, and its idealized view of the general public as both the final judge of newsworthiness and the driver of public policy. In Rosen’s view, the cascade of events he attributes to the Snowden Effect followed inevitably from Snowden’s disclosures. In mine, Snowden, like every other news event protagonist, is just the raw material with which people with genuine control of the news cycle tell us the the things they think we should hear in the ways they think we should hear them. It may seem unfathomable that, under a different set of conditions, Snowden would at this point already be a relatively obscure figure, but this is, of course, highly possible.
Consequently, in my scare quote radical way I am inclined to roll my eyes at all the jubilation that greeted ‘the most important day for The Snowden Effect’ when members of the FISA court and DNI Clapper himself admitted, that yes, perhaps talking about the NSA is a good thing.
Of course, Rosen and Clapper are right, talking about the NSA is a good thing, but so is talking about the other branches of the United States Intelligence Community, like the CIA, for instance, the most lavishly funded of all the agencies, no slouch in the surveillance department itself (including internet snooping) and also no slouch in murdering the people it surveils. Then just under the NSA in budgeting terms is the National Reconnaissance Office, which maintains the country’s spy satellites in a shroud of secrecy. This Business Insider graphic of the so-called Black Budget is helpful in showing both where the priorities are and how really rather arbitrary a unique focus on the NSA , as one of sixteen agencies, seems to be.
Look at the little tiny Justice Department and how insignificant it seems. But when you count up the surveilled, harassed, murdered and imprisoned bodies credited to its various arms — which includes the The Bureau of Prisons, The FBI, The DEA and their local proxies in militarized police departments — the singular focus on the NSA seems even more perplexing, and that’s putting aside that the Department of Homeland Security isn’t even on this map.
Perhaps one aspect of The Snowden Effect will be increased interest in all the various pieces in the Total Surveillance puzzle. Certainly Snowden’s disclosure of the Black Budget is a step in the right direction. But at this juncture, that’s not what this is looking like at all, so there’s risk that The Snowden Effect is a bad apple effect, causing people to become convinced that the NSA is uniquely terrible by virtue of being uniquely newsworthy. Unless I’m missing something, it’s neither one.
Courtesy of commenter Gil Alexander, here’s an amusing (sorta) video of Rosen speaking on Wikileaks. Being smarter than these people is becoming degrading.