Despite the current administration's track record on transparency (completely lousy from nearly every angle), there's little being done by the majority of the press to work around the roadblocks being set up by the government. While the administration has offered a few half-measures aimed at reining in the NSA in the wake of the leaks, the ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence) has gone the other way, forbidding employees from speaking to the media about even unclassified information.
The media claims to be more interested in exposing government wrongdoing than ever before, but it is less willing to get its hands dirty doing it, according to a study by the Indiana University of Journalism.
One of the most surprising developments over that period over the past ten years, is the steep decline in the percentage of journalists who say that using confidential documents without permission "may be justified." That number has plummeted from about 78 percent in 2002 to just 58 percent in 2013. In 1992, it was over 80 percent.
That's even more notable given that the survey took place from August to December of last year, not long after Edward Snowden became a household name for stealing classified documents that revealed the extent of NSA surveillance. The journalists who worked with him to share that information with the public won the Pulitzer Prize last month.
There are several theories as to the drop in the number of journalists willing to publish leaks or push reluctant individuals for information. Some of that is the political climate. The report notes that journalists identify themselves as Democrats at a rate of 4-to-1 over Republicans, so there may be some deferral to the "home team" administration. Backing this theory up is the fact that the highest numbers listed here were recorded during the two Bush presidencies.
Then there's the general chill against whistleblowing, one that has never been colder than it is right now. It's been well documented that the Obama administration has prosecuted more
than twice as many whistleblowers than all other administrations combined
. Post-Wikileaks and post-Manning
, there aren't too many journalism outlets willing to sacrifice freedom for a story.
Other, more questionable methods (hidden mics, confidential informants, buying documents), are on the decline as well. Again, the administration's aggressive push to snuff out leaks is partly to blame, as well as the legal ramifications of questionable tactics
deployed by UK tabloids, which have raised the ire of both that nation's politicians as well as the targets of these "investigative" efforts. Better safe than jailed/fined/sued, it would appear.
But there's another downside to this, one that plays right into the hands of the self-declared "most transparent administration," as Kevin Gostola at Firedoglake points out
The Associated Press found, when conducting its annual review of responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, that the "government more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 244,675 cases or 36 percent of all requests. On 196,034 other occasions, the government said it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper." The media organization concluded the "government's efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office."
First, you seal off the documents. Then, you start threatening the access. Faced with this, it appears many journalistic entities have decided to defer to authority and simply publish unquestioned statements from officials unwilling to back up their words with a name.
The number one complaint most New York Times readers tend to have is that reporters are overly reliant on anonymous sources for information. Public editor Margaret Sullivan has written about this issue, suggesting "readers are right to protest when they see anonymity granted gratuitously" but also acknowledging the crackdown on leaks by the Obama administration may have something to do with people unwilling to talk to reporters on the record.
The number of "anonymous officials" is on the rise, partly due to the administration's own dim view of sharing info with the press. But this makes any statement made completely questionable. If the official is afforded anonymity, there's no accountability. And yet, these statements are delivered by the press in a largely credulous fashion.
What Gostola sees this boiling down to is the most cherished of journalistic tools: access. Journalists are unwilling to sacrifice access for better, harder-hitting reporting. Being shut out means falling behind, even if your integrity remains intact. And an anonymous source is still one more source than is available to those locked out due to their aggressive reporting, even if the statements are little more than rephrased talking points.
The problem is that, despite this evidence, the media still believes it's an effective means of government accountability, even as this same government has convinced many of them that they have neither the expertise nor the right to publish leaked documents or otherwise route around official outlets. Two journalistic outlets went the other way and received Pulitzers
for doing so, but in the eyes of many others, publishing leaks still "isn't journalism." But somehow, taking anonymous statements at face value is.