Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Edward Wasserman: Has Freedom of the Press Become an Illusion?

The University of California journalism professor argues that the media has abandoned a basic commitment to the First Amendment.
Edward Wasserman, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley)

“How can you have a free press if you don’t have free sources?” asks Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” The question strikes directly at the heart of journalism ethics during an era in which sources and—in the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—publishers are being persecuted or prosecuted for speaking truth to power. Wasserman’s April op-ed for The New York Times, “Julian Assange and the Woeful State of Whistle-Blowers,” makes a strong case for enshrining the rights of media sources in the Constitution, alongside freedom of the press. His powerful defense of Assange is based on his belief that “the First Amendment is no better than the willingness of people to come forward.”

“What good does it do to the public if the sources who have provided [information to media] are subject to that kind of fierce and harsh reprisal [that Assange faces]? So that’s the question I was kind of raising,” the scholar tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer. “And I was trying to sort of stiffen the spine of the media when it comes to looking at the fate of sources.”

Scheer, who has argued in the past that the persecution of Assange endangers journalism as we know it, points out the discrepancies between how whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Assange have been treated, both by the U.S. government and the world media, and how, for example, Gen. David Petraeus went unpunished for leaking state secrets.

To Wasserman, the reasoning behind the vitriolic response to Manning and Assange is twofold. First, it has to do with how embarrassing to the Army was the video Manning leaked and WikiLeaks titled “Collateral Murder,” showing soldiers killing Reuters reporters and civilians in Iraq. But perhaps more importantly, the diplomatic cables WikiLeaks published revealed a shocking truth to American officials of which they had been either ignorant or unwilling to face: They were not exempt from the sort of surveillance they have imposed on others around the globe and at home.

That doesn’t mean the U.S. government has given up trying to conceal information from the public. On the contrary, in recent years, whatever transparency existed is being slowly chipped away.

“It’s a very dangerous situation, where more and more information has greater and greater impact, and is being put under the veil of secrecy without any real recourse, without any oversight, without any accountability. And the small number of people who come forward […] are being punished with a ferocity that we’ve never seen before,” Wasserman tells Scheer.

“So you know, it’s an interesting moment,” he continues. “I would like to see the media step up, as guarantors of this informational system, as guarantors of this engine of social awareness that we call news, and insist on the preservation of the conditions that they need to do their jobs.”

Listen to their full discussion about the importance of whistleblowers and the need to defend the courageous few who risk their lives to reveal truths as citizens. Their voices are needed if we are to maintain a democratic state. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.


Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer, with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where I hasten to add that the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Edward Wasserman, who is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, one of the most distinguished centers for the study of journalism. He’s also been a practicing journalist for many years. And more to the point, in addition to having a doctorate in this stuff from the London School of Economics, he actually wrote a very important biweekly column for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service on the media from 2001 to 2016. So we have a guy with a scholarly hat and also with real-world journalistic experience. And the reason I wanted to interview Ed Wasserman at this moment is because Julian Assange is now in jail, facing the fate of being extradited to the United States, or to Sweden, if they put in a chip. He’s in England, as most people know; he was holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy for a long time. And, of course, he’s the person behind WikiLeaks, which has caused a lot of controversy. So let me turn to you, Ed, because you wrote a column which I just—let me put my own prejudice out there—I thought was one of the best things I’ve read on the question of Julian Assange. And it seems to me, whether it was your intention specifically or not, you took, generally, the media to task—the mainstream media—for abandoning Julian Assange. And you make the point that they were quite happy to use the information that he revealed through WikiLeaks from Chelsea Manning and others, but now that he’s in deep trouble, they’re going to sort of stressing his—the adverse aspects of his character, rather than the free speech issues of whether this very important publisher should be held criminally responsible for what he’s done.

Edward Wasserman: Right.

RS: That was a question. [Laughter]

EW: Oh, I’m sorry.

RS: No, I mean, the point is, really, what was—The New York Times published your column; it’s had a great deal of impact, as far as I can see. And you’re one of the rare voices that has spoken out in this way.

EW: Well, right. My concern for some years has been the media’s abandonment of its sources at a time when sources are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been. And I think that Julian Assange becomes a wonderful test case, because in many respects, he’s kind of an unpleasant and disagreeable figure. And yet he has been one of the most superbly reliable sources of major disclosures of official secrecy, not only American secrets, but secrets of countries all over the world, certainly in the new millennium. And my concern is that what I see is this deep ambivalence among news organizations when it comes to sources, particularly sources that are whistleblowers who have broken the law, who have made available to news organizations secrets. And you have on the one hand a kind of correct and fierce enthusiasm for strong, accurate, publicly significant information that will not come to light unless somebody takes a risk and hands over the documents or gets on the phone and talks to the reporter. So, [I’m] not sure the news media understand that there is an important obligation to bring that to public attention. But at the same time, there’s a strong wish to distance themselves from the sources who do this. And then, when the sources are indeed the subject of reprisal and prosecution and the like, the media don’t bother to speak up on their behalf. And they tend to retreat to the notion—“Well, they broke the law, and they have what’s coming to them.” And I think this is an extremely dangerous, as well as a profoundly hypocritical, position for the media to take. So Assange is kind of a test case, but in fact we’ve had, what, six or seven Espionage Act prosecutions since George W. Bush through the Obama administration, and now it’s continuing through the Trump administration. And the question I’m raising is, well, how can you have a free press if you don’t have free sources? What good does it do to say the media are free to publish what they can without fear of prosecution? In fact, the media are not prosecuted for publishing these secrets. What good does it do to the public if the sources who have provided that information are subject to that kind of fierce and harsh reprisal? So that’s the question I was kind of raising. And I was trying to sort of stiffen the spine of the media when it comes to looking at the fate of sources and understanding that the First Amendment is no better than the willingness of people to come forward.

RS: Yeah, let me just clear up a little bit about the reference to sources or publishers. Because in a certain sense—and that’s always been, for instance in the Pentagon Papers case, Daniel Ellsberg was a source. He had these documents, he had classified approval to read them, but he didn’t have approval to distribute them. And he gave them to first The New York Times and then The Washington Post, which published them. And he faced a hundred—I believe it’s 130—years in prison under the Nixon administration. But he was being prosecuted as a source under the Espionage Act. By the way, you mentioned the Obama administration. They prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than all other American presidents together in history, all of them combined. So while one has a kind of mild view of the Obama administration on free speech and free press issues, that’s a standard. And we have not had a real test going up through the Supreme Court of the application of the Espionage Act, which was intended—and we can go into its history—for very different purposes, whether it applies, to what degree, to publishers and to sources. In the case of Julian Assange—and then I’ll turn it back to you—clearly his most important source was Chelsea Manning, a low-ranking member of the armed services who had access as a computer person to a whole trove of data. And he released a tremendous amount of data, which I, and I think any fair observer, including the newspapers, most of which published that material, go to questions of serious war crimes by the U.S. government—killing civilians, shooting a journalist and what have you, in Iraq. And it was Julian Assange who published, in a technical sense certainly, that material. And in fact the specific charge against him is he’s supposed to have offered some very limited advice to his source, Bradley Manning then, now Chelsea Manning: how to crack a password code. That’s the only charge, I think, that the U.S. government has to this date leveled against him. So why don’t you give us the context of this, and the actual material that was leaked, and whether we had a right to know that as a public?

EW: I think it’s—you raised some really good points, and I think the important thing about the context that you’re describing is that these were not cases that we would normally call espionage. These were not people with high-level security clearances who were selling secrets to our enemies, or trying to nourish foreign powers with information they have no business with. These were people who were privy to things that were going on in government that were wrong, and either did not believe or had failed to see them redressed within the mechanisms made available within the government, and so turned to the press to make that information public, in the hopes that that would trigger the kind of corrective response that they were unable to see any other way to achieve otherwise. So none of these people, none of the cases that we’re talking about—I believe it’s true, none—involve anything that you and I would associate with espionage. These were whistleblowers in the sense of people privy to wrong, to wrong action, either corrupt or incompetent actions, or things that had gone terribly wrong and that people in power needed to be held accountable for. And they went to the press as a mechanism of that. So that’s really, I think, critically important. Now, I forgot what the second part of your question was. Was there a second part, Bob?

RS: [Laughs] There is a second part. I would like you to discuss the content—let me give it a little—ventilate it a little bit. The area of national security, war and peace—you know, all-important, takes up most of the, half of the, more than half of the discretionary budget. We have the biggest power, the biggest empire that’s ever existed; whether you like that empire or not, it has a destructive power and visits destruction, metes it out on a scale never before imagined. We have the potential to end life on the planet. So it’s very important, this national security area, even though we don’t have a draft and the public’s attention is not always focused on it. And in national security, my experience—I worked for the L.A. Times for 29 years—my experience in that area, the government—every government in the world—lies with impunity. And they hide behind this national security label. And most of what the media prints, not out of choice but out of necessity, are handouts from government, what the government decides to release. And that was certainly true even with the highly respected New York Times in the run-up to the second Gulf War, where they printed basically the lies of the government—

EW: Yeah, if I could just jump in, when they print—when the information is not officially released, when it’s unofficially released, it’s leaked from high-level sources, oftentimes that’s secret information as well. But the—it’s released by people who have the ability to basically waive the secrecy in order to get it before the public for reasons of their own. So it’s not as if secrets don’t—aren’t made public; it’s that some people in power believe that they have the capacity or the right to make that information public.

RS: Oh, and the secrets rise to a much higher level. For example, take a—and I don’t mean to pick on The New York Times. But you know, they won big prizes, I think they even won a Pulitzer for exposing the case of Chinese stealing our nuclear secrets in the case of Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos scientist from Taiwan—by the way, not from mainland China. And they held him in solitary for, under video examination, for nine months before a judge, a federal judge in Albuquerque, released him. And in that case, that was information coming from people with very high-level security, dealing with what was presumably the most important secret, the development of more effective nuclear weapons, and whether that information was stolen by the Chinese. So this very—if it were true, certainly highest level information was deliberately leaked by people in the Department of Energy and elsewhere, and during the Clinton administration. And nonetheless, no one was ever punished for that. So, yes, it’s very clear: The government willy-nilly, on the highest level, leaks information. It’s going on right now on both sides, in Congress and in the executive branch, over the whole Trump “Russiagate” thing—people leaking information wildly. And yet, when a lowly enlisted soldier does this, in the case of Bradley, Chelsea Manning, and gives it to someone like Julian Assange, that rises to the level of espionage. But not when the White House officials do it.

EW: Right. Right. And I—

RS: And I think that’s a critical observation, because it means in the national security area, if you don’t have Daniel Ellsbergs and you don’t have Chelsea Mannings, you don’t get anything of the story. So we were lied to about the Gulf of Tonkin, which was the excuse for bombing North Vietnam and vastly expanding the Vietnam War, over a second Gulf of Tonkin attack that never occurred. And the government concealed that lie for 20 years.

EW: Well—no, no, I understand. It’s interesting to speculate now as to the information we’re not getting, because I think this repression and this surveillance directed at potential sources has frozen the flow of secrets that were more readily available 10, 15 years ago. Remember now, one of the ironies of the situation—let me just back up a second: In the past, sources were protected inasmuch as the way that prosecutors sought to identify them was by going to the reporter and asking. And the reporters would say, “Well wait, I have a confidentiality agreement with a source; I promised I would not disclose his or her name, and so I’m not going to tell you.” And there is a lot of complicated jurisprudence as to whether the courts recognized reporter privilege as having some constitutional standing. For the most part, journalists are not jailed in order to sweat out the names of the sources. It happens on occasion, but it’s something that requires a level of commitment, a level of determination on the part of federal prosecutors; they typically don’t do that. So you were depending—and the press has been very adamant in insisting that source, that confidentiality agreements need to have legally recognized stature, because otherwise journalists can’t do their jobs. Now, so—back in the day, if the journalists wouldn’t tell the prosecutor or the cops the name of the source, the source could pretty much count on a level of immunity from prosecution. What has changed is that these prosecutions do not rely on reporters ratting out their informants. These prosecutions are able to proceed because cops and surveillance people are able to identify the names of sources by going to emails, going to wiretaps, going to all the sort of—the whole panoply of surveillance mechanisms now available to high-level law enforcement. So they don’t need the reporters anymore. And so that’s why the sources are newly vulnerable. And that’s a long way around to wondering, “Gee, what is it going to take now to get Trump’s taxes? What’s it going to take now to see the unredacted version of the Mueller report?” These are things that, in my view, deeply need publication. And yet my fear is that the effectiveness of law enforcement and surveillance and the like is going to make that harder and harder for facts of that importance to reach the public. And that’s a very scary thing, and that’s why I was arguing in the column: Sources require, demand, deserve a level of legal protection that they don’t now have under our system of laws. And it doesn’t mean you want all secrets to be distributed willy-nilly, but it means there needs to be some very careful, judicious decision-making to decide whether information that is made public actually belonged to the public at that point—should have been made public, that produced a larger benefit. And that’s where I was arguing, because sources right now are extremely vulnerable, and I’m wondering how much we’re not learning about contemporary diplomacy, how much we’re not learning about the decision-making concerning Iran at the moment, concerning North Korea at the moment. We’re not getting very rich information about what’s behind that. And I think that back in the day, we would have, because that would have been much more fully leaked than it is now.

RS: OK, we’re going to be back. The column that we’re referring to—and I would urge people to look it up—was in The New York Times April 26 of this year. Dr. Edward Wasserman, who is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California. The headline is “Julian Assange and the Woeful State of Whistle-Blowers,” and the subhead, “As the media’s indispensable helpmates, don’t they deserve constitutional protection too?” [omission for station break] We were talking about the fact that another source—because Julian Assange is really not the source, it’s then Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning—and was in the position of Ellsberg, but Ellsberg had the highest level of security clearance; he was a highly regarded official in the Pentagon. And the information was of a much more significant security focus. However, the interesting point was that he didn’t spend a night in jail. He did face a very, very long life imprisonment. But Chelsea Manning has spent seven years in jail, and is in jail right now, forgotten—the media forgets it. This brave human being—and OK, I’ll editorialize here—this incredibly brave human being told us what was really going on in Iraq, with the killing of civilians, the—why there are so many people in that country that don’t want us there. Why the mission failed in so many basic—information we absolutely had to have, which the mainstream media validated by using this information. And Chelsea Manning is in jail now. Why? Because the government wants to squeeze her to get at Julian Assange, and to be able to break him. Why the urgency, is the question you asked before. And let me give you a possibility: that Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange prove to be an embarrassment to our established politics, particularly of the Democratic Party. And the basic information that Julian Assange revealed from WikiLeaks was material that showed that the Democratic Party leadership was doing something it should not have been doing, undermining the Bernie Sanders campaign. And Hillary Clinton gave these speeches to Goldman Sachs on Wall Street for three quarters of a million dollars, and as Bernie Sanders pointed out, they must be some speeches. But we didn’t get to read those speeches or know the promises she made to Wall Street, which were really—she was going to take them to Washington when she won and straighten out the economy that they had wrecked. And that’s information I would argue we had a right to have. But that’s why there’s so much venom, I think, being thrown at Julian Assange. That he was a source of inconvenient truth to people who otherwise are liberals and care about free press.

EW: Well, I wouldn’t disagree—

RS: That’s my editorial, by the way. You don’t have to agree with it. [Laughter]

EW: Well, I don’t disagree with it. I think there’s more. There are a couple of other dimensions I would point out to explain the ferocity of the response. One is that you’ve got to remember the footage of the helicopter gunship murder—killing the people on the streets of Baghdad. And that was a very—it was released by WikiLeaks under the title of “Collateral Murder.” It showed and it gave the audio track of the helicopter pilot gunner talking; they were about a mile off when they started deciding whether or not to fire on these civilians. They ended up killing several, including a couple of Reuters reporters there. And I think that was deeply embarrassing to the Army. So there was a certain amount of animus just because of that, because it just showed—it was a war crime, and it was wrong, and nobody was punished for it. And I think it dated from 2004, and it was finally released in 2010. The Army was humiliated by that. So that’s one thing. The other element that was—another element that’s important to keep in your mind is the release of the State Department cables. And this particularly embarrassed Hillary Clinton, because she was the secretary of state at the time. And it also disrupted a certain sort of in-house confidentiality within the State Department, where American diplomats were filing very interesting, well-researched, well-written and often eloquent descriptions of the countries they were in, and telling exactly what they knew about what was going on in terms of the palace politics of those countries. That again, in some instances, people in those countries learned what was going on there only thanks to the leak of those cables. So American diplomats were serving as these sort of extraordinarily perceptive reporters in those countries, doing, effectively, journalism, but journalism that was for eyes only within the State Department. So that was very disruptive, and I think that also infuriated certain people within government. The third thing I’d mention about why the ferocity is because I think government has become aware of how vulnerable they now are to wholesale dumps of data. And the volume of information that Chelsea Manning disclosed, either from the military stuff in the first round and then the State Department cables in the second, was vast—just vast. And suddenly, people within government realized that secrets—things they believed were safely held in secure locations—were a few keystrokes away from being disclosed to the world. And they came down very, very hard, because they realized just how vulnerable the government was. And so I think that those are among the factors that explain just how and why these sources were beaten up as badly as they were.

RS: Well, yeah. And you know, as far as their knowledge about the amount of information that you can get now electronically and through the internet, the U.S. government is a specialist on that, right? We’ve been mining data from all over the world.

EW: Right.

RS: But let me—I want to go to a couple of points before we wrap this up. One is this question of no one was punished for what were war crimes revealed by then Bradley Manning about—that was the original source of this WikiLeaks, to show the killing of civilians deliberately. And the killing of, and shooting a journalist, you know, in the most publicized incident. Nobody was punished.

EW: Oh, well, listen, who got punished for Abu Ghraib? I mean, the political culture is dysfunctional; long before Donald Trump was there, the culture had failed to respond to things like that and forge its own norms. So this has been going on for a while.

RS: Yeah. Well, let me go to that, because it goes to manners and style and everything. Again, that “scumbag” word used by the Columbia Journalism—whatever the context, however nuanced. If I were, here and now, to call David Petraeus—former General David Petraeus—who is a member of the faculty here at USC—and by the way, I don’t think he’s a scumbag; I don’t think that’s a good word to use to describe anybody, I don’t believe in—

EW: Oh, may I just point out—may I point out that the information he leaked to his biographer slash—

RS: And mistress.

EW: —and mistress, was far higher in security, had a much, much more refined and much higher level security clearance than anything that Chelsea Manning has released.

RS: Or Daniel Ellsberg. What General Petraeus revealed to his mistress—for a book she was writing, of all things—was the most secret briefings that you give to the president of the United States.

EW: Right.

RS: OK. Now, again, just to language and manners. If I, here, a professor—clinical, not tenured, but still a professor [Laughs]—were to say that this fellow faculty member, General Petraeus, who’s been on our faculty—I assume still is, haven’t checked lately—was a scumbag, that would be considered a profound violation of manners, of academic ethics, of decency, fairness–and I would be fired, probably, in 24 hours. I don’t know, maybe not; maybe I’m exaggerating. But the reality is, there’s a double standard here. And General Petraeus never told us anything of what he observed in this war. Even Colin Powell didn’t; I’ve talked to Colin Powell; I happened to be in the same class in engineering at City College back in the old days in 1957. And I’ve talked to him a little bit about this. He knows how bad all this was; he knew about the lying in Iraq, but he hasn’t told us, he hasn’t been a whistleblower. So we look at this handful of whistleblowers—and they are a handful; you know—what, seven, eight, nine people who had the courage to tell us what we need to know. You got a guy, John Kiriakou, who was involved in the capture of the highest—allegedly highest-ranking—al-Qaida official, and he was with this guy, getting information from him with a terrific FBI agent, before the guy was tortured. And then torture—he reveals the torture program, and he ends up serving two years in prison, and his whole life is destroyed. Thomas Drake from the NSA, his life is destroyed because he tells us about the corruptions within that agency, and the violations of privacy. You can go down the list. So these whistleblowers, whether you call them scumbags like Julian Assange and whatever he did in Sweden, or any of them—they could be Boy Scouts, they could have impeccable records, they could be male or female, because we’ve had female whistleblowers—they are all punished with the same severity. And so Chelsea Manning, who told us the truth, is now once again in jail, and most people that I know in the media don’t even care. They’re not even aware of it. You bring it up at a dinner conversation, and they look at you like “Why are you bringing that up?” You know? So what is going on here? Have we lost our sense of integrity as journalists?

EW: Well, look. I blame the media for failing to stand by the people whom they rely on, and I believe that the media should be looking more broadly at a role as guarantors of the news process. It isn’t just—it’s not enough for media people to be relieved that nobody is coming and subpoenaing their reporters and trying to get them to identify sources, and thereupon to conclude that there’s no threat to the First Amendment. When sources like this, who are indispensable to the news process, are being jailed and are being hounded and are being silenced, that is a problem for the integrity of that process. And so I agree with you that Manning being in prison again is so—is so outrageous, the idea that he did seven years without anybody having come and produced evidence that the disclosures that he leaked have actually done discernible harm to either intelligence operations or the State Department—have done anything more than embarrass a few people that probably deserved embarrassment. And for him now to be being jailed so that he can give better evidence against Julian Assange so they can ramp up the charges against him—it’s outrageous. And I don’t have a good explanation for why he is not—she is not—somebody who is being monitored, whose condition is being reported—nobody’s going around to get jailhouse interviews from her. And I just don’t know where to begin. And if anything—as we pointed out in the column, the arrest of Julian Assange was seen as something like, you know, delayed justice at last. And I don’t know how to account for it. It’s a kind of deep hypocrisy within the media that I think is morally objectionable.

RS: Well, I think that’s well put. And I really recommend this article. You know, The New York Times, again, April 26, 2019. It should be read not just in every journalism class, but by anybody who really cares about the state of our democracy—“Julian Assange and the Woeful State of Whistle-Blowers.” And I want to take it to one last point, because in the column, you discuss the certain arrogance of the media now, and the willingness to disassociate their craft from somebody like Assange because he’s—you don’t think he’s a scumbag, you think he’s scurrilous, you know, he’s not a good role model. And you quote David Ignatius in The Washington Post. The Washington Post has benefited from these leaks, from Snowden and from Assange, as much as anyone. And, of course, they were glorified in a movie for printing what Daniel Ellsberg, who had stolen—right? Thief—I’m going to stress on this word—he was accused of being a thief. He had a high-level security clearance, and he took these documents, took them down Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles to a travel agency that his then-girlfriend was, of his colleague Tony Russo, had. They used the Xerox machine in the old days; his children helped him, and they made copies. It sounds like a thief, right? But now you bring up—and I have the greatest admiration for Daniel Ellsberg, I think he’s an incredible human being and, you know, public figure. But just think of that word, “thief.” And then, as you quote in your column, The Washington Post editorials declared that Julian Assange is not, quote, a free-press hero. And the headline on an article by the Post’s foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, asks whether he’s anything more than, quote, an accused thief, close quote. Now, David Ignatius knows—because he’s covered the Pentagon, he’s covered national security—he knows, he’s handed information almost daily throughout his whole journalistic life by people who had no right to give him that information, might be selectively leaking, might be serving their own purpose or their own designs, and so forth. And the arrogance of one of our leading foreign correspondent experts, to say he’s nothing more—Julian Assange is nothing more than an accused thief! You know, first of all, he hasn’t even been officially accused of that; he’s accused of helping the accused thief—which would be Manning—break a code, which he wasn’t able to do. So he wasn’t even—he wasn’t successful at that. But I want to end with considering the arrogance of the media. And I don’t want to pit you, the dean of the journalism school at Berkeley, against the establishment media; I know you have a lot of respect for a lot of these people, which is deserved. But there is something rotten here, in my view. And it might have to do with the economic insecurity of the industry; after all, The Washington Post is now owned by the richest man maybe in the world, certainly in the United States, as a personal property—Jeff Bezos. We have a lot of contradictions with how is legend journalism going to survive. And this piling on—this is not the hero we want. We want another kind of hero that we can present to the—there’s something, ah—

EW: Yeah. Well I mean, I think one of the dimensions I haven’t really talked about is there’s a certain amount of mistrust that media people have toward their sources. Because they don’t necessarily think that they’re operating with noble motives. And there’s a fear among media people that maybe they’re being used and manipulated in order to advance stratagems that they don’t really know about. And that in the case of Julian Assange, he lost a lot of friends because he was viewed as being a conduit for Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee in order to get back at his adversary, Hillary Clinton. So there was a sense that there is always a little bit of a suspicion when it comes to source motives anyway. And when it comes to the motives of sources who are breaking the law in order to provide certain information, there’s always kind of this fear—“Well, yeah, I like your information, but I don’t know why you’re giving it to me, and maybe what’s really going on here is something that I’m not really comfortable with. I may be advancing certain causes that you’re not disclosing to me, and I may not be, I don’t like.” So that’s another element that feeds into the distancing between media people and their sources, and I think it takes the form of a certain mistrust, or just an uncertainty as to what causes they’re being enlisted for.

RS: OK. So let me end this, and I’ll give you the last word. But I do want to disagree with what you just said in a nuanced way, on two points. One is, they mistrust their sources sometimes. When there’s pressure to reveal sources, when there’s, you know, when there may be—I’ll grant you that, when they, in the case of Julian Assange, he maybe messed up some of their heroes. They’re so upset with Trump, they don’t want to give any support or any ammunition to criticize Hillary. But the fact is, most of the time, they use their sources quite uncritically. I remember our editor at the L.A. Times, Michael Parks, who teaches here at USC; he once said, trying to explain why they go off the rails, is “too good to check.” And that was what happened, you know, when here was the head of the department—in the Clinton administration—here were people who claimed they had information on Wen Ho Lee, a case people should look up if they don’t know about it. And The New York Times hung this guy out to dry. This guy was being faced with the worst charges, and he’d been working in Los Alamos his whole life, and he had not an evil bone in his body that anybody could point to, or a foreign government he worked for, or anything. And they were fed this material by, you know, Congressman Cox and others, you know, just to destroy this guy. And it was a wild story; they ran it on the front page—the leading secrets of the American nuclear program have been stolen and given to China. And it was just awful stuff. They didn’t check their sources then, and they didn’t worry about the sex life of their sources, and their motives, and their real motives. You know, so when sources come up with a juicy story that, you know, gets you greater circulation and respectability and a Pulitzer Prize, that’s OK—you don’t check so carefully. The problem with Julian Assange is, yes, he has a mouth; he expresses himself; and he’s embarrassed the people that normally defend the First Amendment, which are liberal Democrats. And they’re so freaked out by Trump now, you know, that they’ve dropped their protection. And the second point I want to ask you about is the historical point about the First Amendment. Because after all, the press that was given the guarantee of free press by our founders was often a scurrilous press. They didn’t like the—Jefferson didn’t like the press personally. Washington didn’t like it, what existed of town criers and wall posters and penny press and all of this stuff. These people could be mean, could attack you on everything, whether you had wooden teeth or whether your hair was real, or what have you, you know? And Tom Paine, who was really the great founder of press freedom in America, for my money, the great hero of press freedom, was attacked in the most vicious terms. And remember, a New England mob dug up his grave and spread his bones to the landscape. And yet now we think of Tom Paine with great reverence. So the press that the founders enshrined with this protection was a press they expected to be damn annoying, even irresponsible, mean-spirited—and yet they enshrined it. Why? And I’m going to leave you with a real big ball, not a soft ball, but a ball that hit out of the park, if you want. They enshrined it because they were not focused on national security; they were focused on individual freedom. And their warning was, “Don’t get involved with foreign entanglements; don’t become an empire; stay a republic.” Because if you become an empire and you get into all these wars, you’re going to start lying, the truth is going to be the first casualty, and we’re not going to have a free society. That’s what happened to Rome when it became its empire. And I want to ask you just to take a few minutes to think about [Laughter]—is the big—no, really—is not the big issue that we are not a republic, we are an empire? And when you are spread with bases all over the world, I don’t know—800 of them or something—and when you are engaged in all of this activity, whatever you claim the purpose is, you’re intruding on everybody’s life in the world, you’re the biggest power—isn’t lying and deceit the name of the game? And aren’t whistleblowers—there’s only a handful of them that have the guts to go up against your national security regime—aren’t they your real threat? Because they might let the public know, the Roman public, know what’s being done in their name in that empire.

EW: Well, Robert, you’ve given me the second semester of your class there. And please discuss. I mean, you’ve thrown an awful lot together there. A few ideas that come to mind—first is that these First Amendment protections that the founders had in mind were not very well applied, and the press spent much of its existence in this country defending itself against prosecutions and the like. And you had sedition acts, you had criminal libel, you had all kinds of ways in which the press was hounded. And the First Amendment as a protection for press freedom really is sort of a 20th century discovery. So we’ve never had it easy. The question of—you know, we have such a strange environment right now when it comes to informational freedom. On the one hand, our own personal information is being routinely pillaged and harvested and sold in ways that we’re completely oblivious to—in ways that—and because it’s done for commercial advantage, we don’t see that as being kind of legally significant. And I think that’s a problem. Certainly the reality that you’ve pointed to, which is this kind of expanded range of imperial involvements, which is certainly the case, has come at the same time as just an astronomical increase in the amount of information that’s produced and then made secret. So we have nowhere—we have an unimaginably vast amount of information there that people can’t get access to. And the amount of information, the amount of new secrets being generated every day, is extraordinary. And there is no adult supervision; there is nobody looking at whether this is a legitimate thing that should be kept from the public. And the bureaucrats in government are able to basically assign things, security clearances, based upon whim, based upon the idea that well, we just don’t want other people knowing this, and it’s better if we keep this to ourselves. And the kind of very unreflected and—certainly, you know, without great precision and detail, application of standards. So it’s getting worse, and the government is doing, is getting involved in more and more things that we’re not able to find out about. And it’s affected all levels of government, the things that government refuses to comment on at press conferences. You know, the things that are affecting environmental policy, that are coming out of the bureaucracy that’s now been—that’s now being led by people who are the avowed enemies of many of the policies they’re supposed to be administering. We can’t get information about what those agencies are up to. So it’s a very dangerous situation, where more and more information has greater and greater impact, and is being put under the veil of secrecy without any real recourse, without any oversight, without any accountability. And the small number of people who come forward—and you’re right, there are not very many whistleblowers out there–the small number of people who come forward with things that we should know about, are being punished with a ferocity that we’ve never seen before. So you know, it’s an interesting moment. I would like to see the media step up, as guarantors of this informational system, as guarantors of this engine of social awareness that we call news, and insist on the preservation of the conditions that they need to do their jobs.

RS: Well, that’s an important—I don’t want to say point to end the discussion; it’s an important point to begin a discussion. And if you want to follow this up, and you should want to follow it up, it’s a really—I think it’s going to be a classic piece that you’ve written. Sometimes you write things, and you don’t realize their power; I don’t know if you’re in that position, but the piece is “Julian Assange and the Woeful State of Whistle-Blowers: As the media’s indispensable helpmates, don’t they deserve constitutional protection too?” Dr. Edward Wasserman, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. And it’s April 26, 2019. Not my job to sell or get you to check out The New York Times, but this one is, as I say, a classic in the making at a time when we, you know, we’re dumping on whistleblowers and on their sources. That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. Joshua Scheer is the producer of “Scheer Intelligence” here at the USC Annenberg School. Victor Figueroa has been the engineer. And over at the UC Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, the North Gate Studio’s William Blum has been the engineer. We want to thank them for their cooperation. And be back next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”

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