The Common Good
December 2005

Agents of Power

by Danny Duncan Collum | December 2005

Can democracy survive without an adversarial press?

Agents of Power

As this is written, New York Times reporter Judith Miller is back on the street after doing 85 days of moderately hard time for refusing to testify to the grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to columnist Robert Novak. The source Miller was protecting turned out to be Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby. Libby handed the reporter her “get out of jail” card when he personally released her from the pledge of anonymity.

In recent months, media heavyweights and civil libertarians have flocked to Miller’s defense. Bob Woodward, the Washington Post pioneer of the secret source, publicly offered to do Miller’s time for her. Miller’s attorney, Floyd Abrams—who, back in the day, represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case—sought to portray Miller’s case as a heroic battle for freedom of the press. In this version of events, Miller stands for an independent news media, which, of course, is our last line of defense against governmental abuse of power. Abrams argued that forcing Miller to divulge her sources would cripple the functioning of a free press and thus thwart the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

There’s a saying among lawyers. “When the law is against you, argue the facts, and when the facts are against you, argue the law.” The facts in the Miller case are these: Miller was not protecting a whistleblower trying to stop an abuse of power. She was protecting someone in the government who abused his power (i.e. access to classified information) to punish the real whistleblower—Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, who’d exposed Bush’s lies about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

In addition to a bad set of facts, Abrams’ crusade is saddled with a terrible defendant. If civil libertarians feel yucky defending Howard Stern, Miller should make them break out in hives. Miller long ago abdicated the reporter’s traditional role of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable to become an unofficial spokesperson for the Bush administration’s foreign policy ambitions. From Sept. 12, 2001, until the onset of war in spring 2003, Miller served as the conduit for administration propaganda about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Her stories, usually credited to anonymous administration officials or pseudonymous Iraqi exiles, helped “create the facts” that supported the rush to war. Miller’s stories had it all—secret biological weapons labs, aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons development, the whole nonexistent nine yards.

Far from acting as an independent voice checking and challenging the claims of power, Miller acted as an agent of power. She laundered the dubious claims of the powerful into news in the “paper of record,” and then helped protect those who lashed out against Wilson for exposing the falsehood of one of those claims.

BUT Miller is no aberration. She is, in fact, an appropriate representative of the mainstream media institutions of the 21st century. The Times, The Washington Post, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Time Warner, Disney/ABC, Viacom/ CBS, etc., are not the public’s watchdogs in the halls of power. They are players in those halls, alongside all the other corporate power players, and we can no longer expect their rank-and-file reporters to behave like outsiders.

One little-noted angle on the controversy about Miller was covered in the business pages. There the question was raised: What would happen if instead of simply jailing a reporter, a judge levied huge fines against The New York Times every day until it coughed up information? How could a publicly held corporation justify this financial loss to its shareholders?

That question goes to the heart of the issue facing our democracy. The Washington Post Company was the Graham family business, and The New York Times Company belonged to the Sulzbergers. People with those names are still associated with those papers, but they are no longer the owners. In those days, the owner-publishers could risk it all in a confrontation with power (as the Sulzbergers did in the Pentagon Papers case and the Grahams did during Watergate). But a publicly held company has monetary obligations to stockholders that override the theoretical obligations of a free press to an abstraction called democracy. When push comes to shove, you can bet that money will triumph.

The big question here is the one that’s been around since the first Adams administration: Can democracy survive without an adversarial press? And the answer is still “Probably not.”

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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