I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The media's distorted understanding of "neutrality"

Substantial disagreement exists regarding the proper role of the media when it comes to reporting on the country’s political debates. But one point which seems beyond reasonable dispute is that a primary mandate of the press is to expose untruths and false propaganda which are disseminated by the Government. According to the Founders, that was the primary reason why the Constitution guarantees a free press.

Here is what Karl Rove, the President’s top advisor, said in his speech on Friday regarding the NSA law-breaking scandal, as reported by The New York Times' Adam Nagourney:

"Let me be as clear as I can be: President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why," Mr. Rove said. "Some important Democrats clearly disagree."

This statement is factually false, and Rove has to know that it’s false. Nobody of any note – let alone "some important Democrats" – disagree that it’s "in our national security interest to know" who Al Qaeda is calling and why. Nobody opposes eavesdropping on Al Qaeda, and Rove knows that. And yet, here he is, claiming, falsely, that the NSA scandal is based on a disagreement about whether the Government should be eavesdropping on Al Qaeda, even though no such disagreement exists.

This is not about claiming a little poetic license with flamboyant political rhetoric, nor is this a dispute over how one characterizes the viewpoints of one’s political opponents. This is just false propaganda, pure and simple, with no goal but to mislead. Everyone who has been paying even the most minimal attention knows by now that nobody opposes eavesdropping on Al Qaeda. The only thing anyone is opposed to is not the President's eavesdropping, but that the President purposely broke the law by eavesdropping on Americans without the judicial oversight which the law requires. Karl Rove’s statements about what Democrats believe are not just exaggerated, but are factually false.

The reason this matters so much is because we live in a country where, at the time we invaded Iraq and even for months thereafter, an overwhelming majority of our population -- 70% -- believed that Saddam Hussein participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks even though there was never any evidence of any such thing. Even as of September, 2003 -- almost 6 months after our invasion:

Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe it is likely that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, says a poll out almost two years after the terrorists' strike against this country.

Sixty-nine percent in a Washington Post poll published Saturday said they believe it is likely the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks carried out by al-Qaeda. . . .

The belief in the connection persists even though there has been no proof of a link between the two.

President Bush and members of his administration suggested a link between the two in the months before the war in Iraq. Claims of possible links have never been proven, however.

That is one of the most extraordinary facts ever. People tend to avoid talking about this because it’s just so shameful and embarrassing. What could be a more powerful testament to the way in which this Administration so nakedly traffics in falsehoods, the susceptibility of Americans to be manipulated by rank cartoonish brainwashing, and worst of all, the profound failure of the media to fulfill its purpose of ensuring that our citizenry is informed and that the Government cannot falsely propagandize the nation? What does it say about our Government, our population and our media that we embrace such patent falsehoods even about the gravest of matters?

We are well on our way to having exactly this sad dynamic repeat itself with the NSA scandal. Karl Rove is peddling transparent falsehoods about the scandal because he knows we have a neutered media that will simply pass them along, at most tepidly and neutrally noting that some Democrats disagree, but never, ever pointing out that the claims are factually false. If things continue as they are, public opinion polls will undoubtedly soon show that a majority believes that Democrats oppose eavesdropping on Al Qaeda and that the NSA scandal-- as numerous dishonest Bush followers keep framing it -- is based on a disagreement about whether we should have to "hang up" when Osama calls.

At the very least, it is the media’s obligation to ensure that a fair and informed debate occurs regarding the President’s truly radical and un-American claim that he has the right to break the law, and that any laws which purport to limit the use of his "wartime" powers within the U.S. and against American citizens are, by definition, unconstitutional. In the Times article, after quoting Rove’s claim that Democrats oppose eavesdropping on Al Qaeda, Nagourney tepidly noted:

Yet it is difficult to think of a Democrat who has actually argued that it is not "in our national security interest" to track Qaeda calls to the United States, as Mr. Rove contested; he did not offer any examples of whom he had in mind.

But this is woefully inadequate to correct Rove’s lie. The reason it is "difficult to think of a Democrat" who opposes eavesdropping on Al Qaeda is because there is none of any prominence who believes such a thing. Rove’s statement about the NSA scandal and about what Democrats believe is just false, and the Times should say so.

When the Times fails to fulfill its responsibility to inform citizens that the Government’s statements are false, the false statements take root and then become conventional wisdom -- leading to travesties like 70% of the population believing that Saddam planned 9/11. Any doubt that this is happening with the NSA scandal will be dispelled by simply observing the way in which Bush followers are already starting to recite Rove’s false claims about the NSA scandal. Here is Michelle Malkin favorite A.J. Strata sharing his thoughts this weekend about what the NSA scandal means in light of Rove's speech:

In a week where Osama Bin Laden has resurfaced to once more threaten attack on this country, the liberals find themselves protecting Bin Laden’s right to communicate with his forces here in America, and pretending the risk is not Bin Laden, but the fact the liberals are not in power and the Republicans are in power.

Why can’t liberals differentiate between an attack and an invasion of privacy? Is it because to them Al Qaeda’s 9-11 attack was not an act of war but a legitimate political statement? One they support? . . .

What happens when America decides liberals simply see themselves as the brethren of Al Qaeda, who are a suppressed and misunderstood political movement with the right to kill Americans to make their case known. Well, if that happens there will be a political shift this nation sees once in a millennium.

After the Administration's campaign to convince the A.J. Stratas of the world that Saddam planned 9/11 was such a smashing success, its propaganda efforts are now in overdrive to convince the same people that the NSA scandal stems from the Democrats' desire to allow Al Qaeda to attack Americans. Contrary to the bravado coming from the White House, the NSA law-breaking scandal is a real threat to the Administration. If the media does its job and makes clear that this scandal is not about whether Democrats favor eavesdropping on Al Qaeda but, instead, about whether the President has the right to break the law because the "war" we are fighting entitles him to do so, then the actual issue will have to be aired.

The Administration’s central goal, as always, is to depict opposition to the President as evidence of one’s sympathies with The Terrorists. We just spent a whole weekend hearing about how Democrats sound exactly like Osama. And simultaneously, and not unrelatedly, we hear Karl Rove issuing the indisputably false claim that the NSA scandal stems from the Democrats’ desire to block the Administration from eavesdropping on their allies in Al Qaeda as they plot their attacks against Americans.

The media need not take sides in the NSA debate or in any other. But it is failing in its primary purpose if it continues to allow the Administration to blithely make false statements without informing their readers that the statements are false. Allowing the Government to make false statements is not neutrality; it is an abdication of the principal journalistic responsibility.

Karl Rove’s statements about the NSA scandal are patently false and are intended to prevent examination or even awareness of the Government’s claimed powers of law-breaking. It is the job of the media to make this known and to devote itself to exposing -- not neutrally passing along -- such government falsehoods.

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