Farhad Manjoo of Salon recently wrote two controversial articles in which he argued that the New York Times' jailed reporter Judy Miller is a true martyr of the First Amendment who should be defended as such by liberals, even if her actions are rightly judged to be morally despicable. Like a neo-Nazi whose right to march any liberal must uphold, Miller should be protected by the principles espoused by the First Amendment even if she sought to exploit them for the most craven purposes. The very future of a free press, Manjoo warned, is at stake. Manjoo is right about that last part but nothing else and not for the reasons he cites.
The Judy Miller/Robert Novak saga may really signal the incalculable loss that Manjoo says it does, but if so the long American experiment with a free and independent media has died with a whimper and not with a bang. The sad fact is that the free media has been dying a slow and disgraceful death for a long time. Independent media outlets have been starved and marginalized, while the mainstream media has been swallowed alive by the same multi-national corporations who set the nation's political agenda. Journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy have simply disappeared in the race to compete with the ludicrously partisan infotainment of Fox News and the right-wing echo chambers. Lurid, sensationalist, over-sexed, paranoid, jingoistic, the once-free press has merged seamlessly into the newly formed capitalist media-state, an entity new to this planet.
If Manjoo really wants to pinpoint the day the free press died in America he should pick one from the winter of 2002-2003, when for the first time in my knowledge the American media fully aided and abetted a massively illegal and deceptive act by the United States government, a conspiracy the likes of which this country has never seen before. It was during that winter that U.N. weapons inspectors announced dutifully that they were finding no evidence of WMD, that Saddam Hussein's government submitted a report of many thousands of pages on the subject of its destruction of the weapons it was accused of having, that European and global media argued vociferously that WMD no longer existed in Iraq, that the State Department and CIA made last ditch efforts to prevent the invasion from taking place, that the mad Stalinist state of North Korea repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear attack against the United States, that millions and millions of protesters from every country in the world took to the streets in protest, that governments such as Mexico and Turkey took brave stands against the coming invasion, that weapons inspectors begged the United States for as little as three more weeks to complete their work, and that U.S. warships moved 150,000 troops into the Persian Gulf in preparation for the attack and the Pentagon built a state of the art sound stage in Qatar from whence to direct media operations. During this time the American media, en masse, simply reported to the American people what the Bush administration told it to report, in some cases verbatim. None of the bizarre lapses in logic or evidence on the part of the administration, such as why if the government knew the location of the banned weapons they did not inform the inspectors so that they could destroy them, was ever raised in a prominent way by a mainstream publication anywhere in this country.
In the months and years following, there has been much talk of hindsight, whether from the rueful media who wish they had reported the truth or the intelligence community which allowed its own findings to be distorted by the White House or Senate Democrats who preferred to aid in the conspiracy rather than be voted out of office as anti-war liberals. Yet for anyone who remained rational during that winter despite the enormous pressure not to, no hindsight is necessary. If American soldiers had actually found WMD in Iraq I along with many millions of others would have been taken by surprise.
Under these conditions the abuses of Miller and Novak come as no surprise. To the contrary, they are really inevitable. They simply state formally what has been known informally for a long time now. The media no longer reports what is true. It reports what it is told to report by the ruling party whose interests it exists to serve. The media is no longer a mediator between the complex and conflicting powers of the public and private sectors, but rather an instrument of propaganda, of official state control. So when powerful forces in the government sought ways to discredit a political opponent, it was no surprise that they would turn to their allies in the media, neo-con moles operating under the guise of the old class of independent reporters.
To return to my original argument, I am sorry to inform Manjoo that protecting the freedom of the press is impossible if there is no free press to protect. The First Amendment simply does not apply and cannot apply to the media as it is presently constituted. It is as antiquated as the parchment on which it's written. Thus, the decision to send Judith Miller to jail stands as the just and moral decision. This is a sad day, just as sad as Manjoo says it is. A venerable and noble experiment has come to an ignominious end. But the press has nobody to blame but itself.