A Time for Disobedience


The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. —Henry David Thoreau, 1848

The press is now looking squarely at a perversion of government. The administration of George W. Bush has raised secrecy and information control to a level never before seen in Washington.

The falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction that gave the White House the public support to wage war in Iraq may be the most vivid example of the perversion, but the practice permeates all corners of the Bush government.

The press has been grappling with how to cope with this extreme control and distortion of news, some reporters and editors more than others. One possibility they might consider is civil resistance, as in quiet, nonviolent, respectful rebellion.

Take Ron Hutcheson, the White House correspondent for the Knight-Ridder papers. He has been fighting the battle—and at times has found himself alone. When the White House billed a press briefing about a Bush foreign trip last year as on the record and then changed it on the spot to off the record, a couple of other journalists complained briefly. Hutcheson kept arguing for a return to the original ground rules or at least an explanation. It was futile. The anonymous official told him: “This is the way we do it. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” “I just got pissed off and I walked out,” recalls Hutcheson. None of the others followed him.

What would have happened if the rest of the newspeople at the briefing had also walked out? Well, not a great deal all at once, but a message would have been sent. It would have said to the White House: “We are professionals, and our job, from this country’s founding, is to elicit reliable information for the public—and you are distorting that flow of information by delivering it off the record, anonymously, thereby making no one accountable for its credibility.”

I would guess the message might at first evoke some cynical laughter inside the White House, but if other Washington reporters began embracing this and similar dissenting practices, and stand-up journalism became the norm, the laughter could fade. It could turn into an embarrassment for the Bush stonewallers. Especially if reporters and editors were able to effectively explain to the American people why the press’s role is still so important to them. The public often seems to see us as part of the entertainment circus that parts of the “media” business have become and, therefore, not people to be taken seriously.

There are many other ways to confound stonewallers and fabricators. When government officials distort the truth or tell lies at off-the-record briefings, reporters might contemplate exposing them by name. Wouldn’t that break the off-the-record ground rules set by the officials and accepted by the reporters? Yes, it would, but consider the compact that was agreed to. The reporters, for example, might have agreed not to name the officials or their jobs or agencies. In return, the officials agreed to tell them the truth. Once an official lies about or distorts events, he has broken the compact, and as long as the reporter, in his article, can effectively demonstrate the official’s lies or distortions, then I would argue that all bets are off and the reporter is freed from the ground rules and can describe the briefing in candid detail.

Can reporters get into trouble with their editors or publisher when they stand up to officialdom in these ways? I would say it’s quite possible, since some editors dislike such tactics or are opposed to adversarial collective action by a press corps against government tactics.

Leonard Downie Jr., the executive editor of The Washington Post, is certainly not known for being timorous about going up against government, but last month he sent a message declining an invitation to a major Washington press symposium on these matters. The message read:

“I’m sorry, but we just don’t believe in unified action and would find a discussion aimed at reaching agreement with others on ‘practicable steps’ or even agreement on when not to agree to various ground rules uncomfortable and unworkable. We can’t participate in a discussion of the kind you are proposing.”

I would suggest to the Post editor that it does not have to be “unified” action. But why not simply give your reporters ad hoc options that they might use as individuals in certain situations that are antithetical to the free flow of information?

There’s absolutely nothing new or outrageous about the methods of journalistic civil disobedience. Those reporters or editors worried about offending officialdom and losing their access should step back and look at history. Reporters from the time of Thucydides have been poking their noses and their physical selves into places where the powers had forbade them to go. In my own 45 years as a reporter, I have often gone into areas, both domestic and foreign, that the press was barred from. It was at times the only way to get the story. At the same time, you knew that under local law, you were trespassing and, if caught, could be arrested or deported—both of which have happened to me and legions of other journalists. You have to be prepared to accept the penalties.

Bush was asked about his administration’s secrecy controls last Thursday in a question period after his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors meeting in Washington. In a jokey mood, he at times made light of the issue and drew some laughter. At another point, he contended that all his secrecy policies were made necessary to keep from “jeopardizing the war on terror,” in order not to “put somebody’s life at risk.” This was about as bald a falsehood as any president could tell. The public record shows that much of his information lockdown has to do with politics and with domestic issues that have no relation to terrorism or homeland security. One hopes the editors emerged from this snow job with stronger spines.

One of the reasons the public doesn’t have much empathy for the press’s troubles is that often they see us as people claiming privilege. Anotherreason—maybe the primary one—is that we haven’t made our case with the public. We haven’t gotten across why people need us or why what we do is important to the functioning of a free nation. We haven’t effectively gotten our readers to understand that if they get lied to by their government or other power centers, and we—or some other watchdogs—don’t quickly show them the lie, bad things can happen. People can lose their health insurance or have their homes seized by the bank. And wars can happen and people can die. So we have to find better ways to show them why this is true and therefore why aggressive journalism is a necessity.

The “rights” to information that some in the press cite so automatically are not automatic. They were fought for and won in difficult times. They will have to be fought for now. We have to continually earn them.