Not Much Improvement
About every year about this time, I attend a lunch meeting with civil liberties lawyers and interested organizations to discuss the position of the United States on the survey of press freedom globally. In the past we’ve met at a local college faculty club, although this year we met at a restaurant (undisclosed location), and we’ll get to that in a minute. The United States has fared egregiously in recent years on the global survey of press freedom, and we had heard that this year the United States had improved dramatically-moving fro 47 to 33 in the world. Turns out that this was not as good news at is seems. It appears this year that the survey no longer considered murdering journalists to be the ultimate crime against a free press, meaning that some seriously bad countries who only kill journalists get rated somewhat differently than they used to. And we have some serious new problems here. In past years, university presses have been the last bastion of honest non-fiction publication. As Anne Applebaum pointed out in her article the Decline of American Press Freedom, the newest trend is downward pressure on university presses not to publish material which does not meet certain criteria. By way of example, Applebaum points out that Yale University Press bowed to pressure not to reprint the Danish cartoons supposedly depicting Mohammed in a book about press censorship. Our meeting today was held in a restaurant, because the university which was supposed to be hosting us is about to receive a massive federal grant and, hey, the topic of the day was the growing repression of the Obama Administration, which is approving the federal grant. The meeting is now invitation only, and, for the first time, wasn’t publicized and its attendance list will not be released.
One of the things that amazes me about the Obama Administration is that it just doesn’t seem to care that the United States is rated 33, as opposed to 1, on the list of free press countries. The cause of this all flows from the Oval Office. 1. FOIA is being handled in such a way that it is nearly impossible for the press to report on the Administration. By way of example, I was never able to get census bureau records for my own issue. 2. This administration is more secretive than any administration since Nixon, making it virtually impossible to report on the Administration. 3. Corporate media has become so dependent on narrowed access that criticism of the Administration results in further narrowing of access. 4. Federal power seems to be used to deter universities who receive federal grants from academic work that criticizes the administration. 5. This administration has demonstrated a greater willingness to prosecute journalists who won’t reveal sources. 6. The administration appears to spend an inordinate amount of time bullying opponents on the internet at taxpayer expense, although the lack of production of records under FOIA makes it difficult to understand the scope and nature of that program. Equally, in America, you can murder someone financially rather than physically, and this threat has become pervasive.In short, one of the reasons that the US is doing so poorly on press freedom surveys is that the US does not cooperate in addressing concerns about press freedoms.
We should lead the world in press freedom, social justice and openness. Obama doesn’t need a majority in any branch of the Congress to throw open the curtain to harsh sun light, or to use the Justice Department to enforce basic freedoms. But when Obama slams shut those windows, and uses the Justice Department for his new pro life agenda, our global credibility plunges to new and record lows.
One of the more interesting parts of today’s meeting reflects a serious change of opinion I’m having to what Bradley Manning did. It wasn’t that long ago that I had serious concerns about Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. Having had the opportunity to really consider the issue, and to discuss it with other folk, I’m starting to have second thoughts about the government’s reaction to those leaks. I’m not sure where I’m going with that train of thought, but I’m starting to think that if the government won’t release information then there is a certain degree of need for civil disobedience by those able to perform it. If Obama wants to leave a legacy, he might want to explore why the United States is viewed so poorly around the world that Manning and bloggers are starting to be treated internationally as dissidents in the Soviet model. Frankly, when I was told that we wouldn’t have a sign in sheet for this lunch, I felt a little like a dissident, and it wasn’t pleasant.
For those who are interested, Applebaum’s essay can be found in a collection called New Threats to Freedom: From Banning Ice Cream Trucks in Brooklyn to Abandoning Democracy Around the World, edited by Adam Bellow. And, no, you won’t find it on a university press imprint.