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The Nationalism Bias of Journalists

Former Bush OLC official Jack Goldsmith defends the decision of The New York Times and several other American media outlets to conceal from their readers that Raymond Davis worked for the CIA -- even though those papers published President Obama's misleading description of him as "our diplomat in Pakistan" and the NYT told its readers about what it deceitfully called "the mystery about what Mr. Davis was doing with this inventory of gadgets."  This concealment stands in stark contrast to The Guardian, which quickly told the truth about Davis to its readers.  But what's most notable is Goldsmith's reasoning.  He argues that this concealment reflects the fact that American national security reporters are "patriotic" -- by which he means they are driven by a desire to protect American "interests" -- and this, he believes, is a good thing:

This is an example of an underappreciated phenomenon: the patriotism of the American press. For a book I am writing, I interviewed a dozen or so senior American national security journalists to get a sense of when and why they do or don’t publish national security secrets. They gave me different answers, but they all agreed that they tried to avoid publishing information that harms U.S. national security with no corresponding public benefit. Some of them expressly ascribed this attitude to "patriotism" or "jingoism" or to being American citizens or working for American publications. This sense of attachment to country is what leads the American press to worry about the implications for U.S. national security of publication, to seek the government’s input, to weigh these implications in the balance, and sometimes to self-censor. (This is a natural and prudent attitude in a nation with the fewest legal restrictions in the world on the publication of national security secrets, but one abhorred by critics like Greenwald.)  The Guardian, al Jazeera, and Wikileaks, by contrast, worry much less, if at all, about U.S. national security interests. . . .

As General Michael Hayden said last year in his comments on Gabriel Schoenfeld’s fine book on national security secrecy, the government is "kind of out of Schlitz" when trying to persuade the foreign media not to publish a national security secret. American journalists display "a willingness to work with us," he said, but with the foreign press "it's very, very difficult."

Note that Goldsmith isn't merely pointing out that American journalists are "patriotic" or "jingoistic" as individuals.  He's saying that these allegiances shape their editorial judgments.  And "patriotism" to Goldsmith doesn't merely mean some vague type of "love of country," but much more:  this "sense of attachment" creates a desire to advance "U.S. national security interests," however the reporter perceives of those.

Leave aside just for the moment the question of whether it's good or bad for American journalists to allow such nationalistic allegiances to mold their journalism.  One key point is that allowing such loyalties to determine what one reports or conceals is a very clear case of bias and subjectivity:  exactly what most reporters vehemently deny they possess.  Many establishment journalists love to tout their own objectivity -- insisting that what distinguishes them from bloggers, opinionists and others is that they simply report the facts, free of any biases or policy preferences.  But if Goldsmith is right -- and does anyone doubt that he is? -- then it means that "the American press" generally and "senior American national security journalists" in particular operate with a glaring, overwhelming bias that determines what they do and do not report:  namely, the desire to advance U.S. interests. 

Indeed, Goldsmith's main point is that media entities that are free of this bias (he names The Guardian, Al Jazeera and WikiLeaks) are willing to disclose truths which "patriotic" American media outlets will conceal.  That, of course, is exactly what happened in the Davis case, and in so many other episodes as well.  Bizarrely, Goldsmith believes he's defending the American media by arguing that subjective policy goals and nationalistic loyalty are what drives their reporting.  But that "defense" is squarely at odds with how most reporters hold themselves out to the public:  as beacons of journalistic objectivity who do not allow their opinions or outcome preferences to shape what they report.  Goldsmith's factual premise is certainly correct:  nationalistic bias is a central ingredient in how American national security journalists and their editors "report" the news.

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Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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