Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Limits of a free press in the US?

Nothing is more revealing than the acknowledgement by two of America's 'highly regarded' and 'respected' and respectable broadsheets - the 'New York Times' and the 'Washington Post' - that they complied with a demand from the White House to delay a story which had already blazed across the wires, foreign press, internet, and blogs. We're talking of the breaking story that the American Raymond Davis, arrested in Pakistan for the shooting of armed 2 Pakistani whom he alleged had wanted to rob him, was a CIA agent with a diplomatic passport.
Rumours had already floated in the blogsphere that Davis was a US spook working in Pakistan under the cover of his embassy's protection. This veil of diplomatic nicety allowed the Obama administration that Pakistan had to recognise Davis' status, under international protocols, and expel him from the country. Islamabad did not see it in this light, and what's more, the popular anger the shooting provoked, as well as another 'rented vehicle' which rushed to Davis' defence, accidently killed another Pakistani on a motorbike. The Pakistani government already under pressure from the streets, and an increasing chorus of anti American sentiment refused. The quick dispatch of the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Affairs committee John Kerry has so far met with a setback, whilst Davis remains in gaol.
Davis worked for the private security firm Blackwater and is now a 'contractor' for the CIA. We know nothing of what he was doing in Pakistan or whether he 'irked' that country's own spook network 'SIS', which plays a double game with the US and the Taliban. But that's another story.
What concerns us here is the erosion of a free press in the US. Long gone are the heroic days of glory of the NYT and the WP. The giddy moments of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Today, we have a supine press which works cheek to jowl with the government in vetting stories or delaying them when the technology and the art of reporting rips the veil off government's efforts to gag stories and restrict the press from informing its readers.
Bill Keller, the NYT's executive news editor, in a Sunday Times Magazine wrote a long, self serving article attacking Julian Aussage of Wikileaks fame, and puffing up his own and the NYT's role in 'responsibly' getting the word out on the leaked US diplomatic cables. Aussage on the US radio and television spoke of why he didn't offer to work with the WP. He counted off at least two occasions that top Post reporters or editors removed information from articles which the government did not approve of.
Aussange, at first, worked with the NYT but when he discovered that before they would print any story of diplomatic cable content, they showed the material to the White House who 'instructed' the paper of note what they found troubling in revealing in them.
It's not the first time, the Times' owners have 'co operated' [read co opted] by the White House. Ochs Salzburger jr. in a meeting with Bush just before the November 2006elections agreed to hang fire on a story on torture and secret and 'illegal' machination of his regime in Iraq, which might have cost the sitting president a second term. Ochs Salzburger readily agreed, and were it not for a publisher who was going to release a Times reporter's book in January 2007, did the 'old gray lady' of US journalism push the withheld story to the front page.
Historically speaking, the US press has cooperated with the US government. It has used its press credentials during the Cold War for CIA agents. During the US invasion of the Dominican Republic, Tad Szulc agreed to downplay Johnson's plans to invade that republic to topple a mild Socialist Juan Bosch for the story of his life.
Today the growing control of the press by the US government through the ubiquitous use of technology, mining social networks, and the hard nosed use of the legal systems to prosecute, jail, and fine is eroding the parametres of a free press. On the other hand, the owners of the Times & the Post share the same outlook and corporate standpoint which they do not want to jeopardise, and they are more than willing to self censure and hop to the government's tune.

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