While I was in public life, I wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Who’s Watching the Watchers.” The subject was media accountability. Hoping the industry would police itself struck me as naïve as thinking North Korea might give up its nuclear weapons. My proposal was to create a citizen review board — an idea which didn’t go far, though several people in leadership positions wrote privately to support of my idea. None of them, however, seemed willing to put their views on the record, afraid of an industry that bought ink by the truckload.
In Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, Rahul Sagar asks a similar question about accountability, this time for people who leak classified governments documents to the public. His conclusion is that some leaks have their value, particularly when they expose government wrong doing, but that before leaks are exposed, they should meet five conditions: 1) the disclosure must reveal real wrong doing; 2) the leak must be based on evidence rather than hearsay; 3) the information must not threaten public safety disproportionately; 4) leaks must be limited in scale; 5) the leaker must unmask himself and take his lumps. (“Live and let Leak,” by Jack Shafer, Foreign Affairs, Mar/April 2014 pg. 137)
In his review of Sagar’s book, Jack Shafer, a journalist for Reuters, believes the author’s five conditions are naive and quotes former Senator Daniele Patrick Moynihan in defense of media leaks: “ …excessive secrecy can actually harm national security by preventing policymakers from learning valuable information required to make informed decisions.” (Ibid pg. 139)
Shafer defends the current loose relationship between whistleblowers and the press. That system works, he argues, and the First Amendment gives the press the right to challenge secrecy laws. (Ibid pg. 142) While offering his rebuttal, Shafer ignores Sagar’s concern that “journalists lack the necessary understanding of the big picture to responsibly pass unauthorized disclosures to the public. (Ibid pg. 141.)
Sagar’s concern is legitimate and not the least bit naïve. What is naïve is to assume that reporters are fastidious in gathering facts; that they are without bias or commercial motivations and that they are incapable of being duped by self-serving leakers, despite countless examples to the contrary. One of the saddest was Dan Rather’s fall from grace when he put too much faith in a news source who told him what he wanted to hear about George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killian_documents_controversy).
To round out his argument on the media’s right to work with leakers, Sagar quotes President James Madison: ‘Where an excess of power prevails no leader can resist going too far.” (Ibid pg. 142) Few would dispute that wisdom, but what Sager ignores is that the same temptation applies to the press. After 25 years of waiting for an answer, I must ask again, “Who’s Watching the Watchers?”
(Courtesy of www.chrismadden.co.uk)