The story of
President Bush deliberately breaking the law to create a domestic
spy operation is a lot of different things: it is a tale of power abuse, arrogance,
and contempt for the law by an out-of-control president. But it is also a story
of how today's major media behave with near total deference to power and its
own profit motive. What we are watching, even in the seemingly small details
of the coverage, is no less than the media's complicity in helping estsablish
a quasi-legal framework for what was a clearly illegal abuse of government power.
It is in the clearest sense the media being used as tools of state power in
overriding the very laws that are supposed to confine state power.
You might be thinking, "How is that possible? Didn't the New
York Times print the story exposing the surveillance program, and doesn't
that show the media challenges power?"
Well, not really, when you consider that the Times actually held the story
for a year. As the Washington Post reports, the Times' essentially held the
story because of exactly what I said: deference to power, and its own bottom
line. First, deference: the Times editors now tell us they held the story because
the White House told them to. Then, profit: we learn that what changed between
now and a year ago was that a Times reporter, James Risen, is about to publish
a book about the entire affair and thus publishing the story now will mean maximum
pre-sale buzz in January when the book is released - a key for any big book
But even more interesting than these big embarrassing clues about the media's
motives are the very small ones. Notice, for instance, that in describing the
President's clearly illegal behavior, the media are parroting the White House's
terminology - terminology specifically crafted to make it sound as if Bush was
operating on quasi-legal grounds.
So for instance, the Times tells us Bush "secretly authorized the National
Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans." The paper also refers to "the
powers granted the N.S.A. by President Bush." "Authorized" and
"granted." The word
"authorize" is defined as "to grant power or authority to,"
and the word "grant" is the act of giving something one has. The media's
use of these terms, then, is the media trying to make the public assume as fact
that Bush actually had the power or authority to grant in the first place.
In fact, only until the very end of the Times piece do we get a glimpse that
the White House actually knew it didn't have the power or authority to grant,
when the Times reports "President Bush did not ask Congress to include
provisions for the N.S.A. domestic surveillance program as part of the Patriot
Act and has not sought any other laws to authorize the operation." Why?
Not because the White House thought a domestic surveillance operation was legal.
But because "the proposal would be certain to face intense opposition on
civil liberties grounds." They knew it wasn't legal, and they knew it wouldn't
be made legal by Congress, but they went ahead and did it anyway. And yet as
if playing a role in an Orwell novel, the media is still using terms that imply
the President had every legal right to do it in the first place.
Sadly, other major media seem to be parroting this nonsense. The Associated
Press, for example, reports that "President Bush said Saturday he has no
intention of stopping his personal authorizations of a post-Sept. 11 secret
eavesdropping program in the U.S." That's right: "his personal authorizations,"
as if he can just go around "authorizing" whatever he wants without
regard to the fact that such powers are not his to authorize.
But then, we've seen this before. In a famous 1977 interview, Richard Nixon
the president does it that means that it is not illegal." At that time,
we were lucky Nixon was long out of office and thus unable to turn that contempt
for the law into presidential directives. Today, it is different - we clearly
have a president with the same attitude, but a president who is still very much
in a position to forge that attitude into government policy. And most disturbing
of all, we have a media that, because of protive motives and fear of power,
are more than happy to help that president publicly justify his disregard for
the rule of law.