Journalists, citizens, patriots and traitors
- posted June 25, 2020
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The ethics dilemmas of media practitioners, who cover armed conflict, illustrate those increasingly faced by all journalists, who cover national security outside of war zones — specifically, those who acquire or publish intelligence acquired from breaches or leaks by government insiders, foreign intelligence services, private entities, or non-state actors.
The world of intelligence is, after all, “silent warfare,” according to scholars, Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt.
In other words, intelligence is “inherently connected to the competition among nations and that absent something akin to [the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel] Kant’s state of ‘perpetual peace,’ intelligence will, like diplomacy and military force, remain a regular tool of statecraft,” write the two scholars.
Self-defense, Source Protection and Autonomy (Independence)
An oft-cited tenet of journalism ethics is source protection.
But even that concept is limited to specific instances, according to the Society of Professional Journalists. That is, ethics guidelines generally caution journalists about the use of unnamed sources.
Undoubtedly, information and operational security are concerns for media practitioners, and never more so than for those who cover armed conflict.
Armed conflict has long presented journalists with ethical dilemmas that relate to matters of life and death.
Armed conflict also demonstrates most starkly the value of professional ethics, but also their potential limitations.
In recent years, belligerents have increasingly targeted journalists with violence in war zones.
On today’s battlefields, reporters face ethical dilemmas and choices about whether to travel with armed security or to carry weapons themselves for self-defense.
And, while either scenario may provide journalists with a sense of security, these countermeasures “undermine” journalists status as “observer[s] and, by extension, the status of all other journalists working in the conflict area,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Yet, “while the presence of security guards could hinder journalists’ observer status, many media organizations [have] found they [have] had little choice but to rely on private personnel to protect staff in uncontrolled situations,” CPJ also notes.
In doing so, however, journalists run the risk of being executed as spies if captured.
In the face of increasing violence by belligerents in war zone, and other socio-economic trends impacting the news (from declining foreign bureaus, staff, and budgets); fewer opportunities to embed with the U.S. or friendly combatants in airpower dominated conflicts; to other disruptive consequences from information technology, that is, on training cycle and labor markets), journalists are increasingly reporting on war remotely using open-source information.
Journalists, who do cover armed conflict (whether on the ground or remotely), like their counterparts who cover other aspects of national security are also increasingly targeted by cyber operations that surveille their activities and intercept their data.
Journalists are prime targets for both belligerents and foreign intelligence services that are conducting cyber and information operations.
Russian-linked operations, for example, reportedly targeted “at least 200 journalists, publishers and bloggers…as early as mid-2014” until 2017.
In 2019, an Iranian-linked cyber group also allegedly attacked email accounts associated with journalists who cover global politics and have a critical view of the Islamic Republic.
Chinese linked cyber-attacks “coincid[ing] with the reporting for a [New York] Times investigation, published online on Oct. 25  that found that the relatives of Wen Jiabao, Chinas prime minister, had accumulated a fortune worth several billion dollars through business dealings,” according to one account.
National security reporters have also noted recently that U.S. government surveillance and changing U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines have had a deleterious impact on source-protection and the willingness of sources to communicate with them.
Media advocates and professionals have even said that journalists have begun “to think and act like spies,” that is, by defensively employing technical and operational countermeasures to protect themselves and their sources from State and non-state actors.
The similarities between journalists and intelligence practitioners regarding collection and analysis of open-source information has also been made.
However, as I have written elsewhere in this series, journalism and intelligence should not be conflated.
Journalism is a function of civil society, while traditional intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination to policymakers or their military counterparts have traditionally been the function of governments.
Furthermore, journalism, as a discipline, does not exist in a special or exigent condition even when media professionals are covering armed conflict.
Journalists are neither combatants, nor spies. They are civilian non-combatants.
Yet, maintaining autonomy and security is a challenge that most war correspondents acutely understand.
When journalists embed with belligerents, they rely on them for security.
Doing so, media professionals forfeit some of their autonomy, agreeing to ground rules that ensure not only their own safety, but that of the military contingent they are traveling with.
When media professionals embed, the “life of military personnel and the success of the military operation are more important than journalistic professional requirements,” notes one expert.
But, do journalists, who remotely obtain or otherwise acquire leaked intelligence related to national security, also depend themselves on the security of the political community?
Are media practitioners, therefore, ethically responsible for protecting the security of fellow citizens?
Relatedly, do members of the media, who collect or otherwise work with closely held national security information have an ethical obligation to protect that information from foreign adversaries and other malicious actors?
Journalists, Citizens, Patriots and Traitors
Undoubtedly, the use of journalistic cover to conduct espionage or subversive propaganda operations by a number of nation-states has a long and controversial history, both on the battlefield and in “silent warfare.”
Many journalists and their advocates decry such activities as violations of their professional ethics and a danger to both their colleagues and the integrity of the profession as a whole.
The proposition that witting espionage is a danger to the profession begs the question whether publishing the same material as the unwitting pawns of a foreign intelligence operation is any less damaging or ethically questionable for the media.
Citing the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which “protects the rights of the press to practice without fear or favor from the government. If American journalists become agents of government rather than its critics, as they already are in so many countries, the practice will have a corrosive effect on our democracy,” wrote Kate Houghton in 1996.
The former chairman and editor of U.S. News and World Reports, Mortimer B. Zuckerberg, also testified before the U.S. Senate in 1996:
“Whatever gains may be justified and whatever grounds may be used to justify intelligence work by the press, in whatever form it may take, it seems to me that these gains must still be assessed in the context of what they do to the press as an institution in a free society…To be the instrument of government rather than a constitutional check on government would undermine the good that independent journalism does for an open society.
Moreover, according to a 2017 study by Paul Lashmar at the City University of London:
“Given the frequency of the justification by terrorist groups, militias and authoritarian regimes that they have arrested, kidnapped, deported, tortured or murdered journalists because they were spies, the abuse of journalism by intelligence agencies is a significant factor in endangering the lives of journalists who operate in hostile environments.”
Yet, journalism ethics vis-a-vis propaganda, patriotism, espionage, and war sometimes present difficult dilemmas about the “boundaries between…building up and tearing down democracy,” notes journalist and author, Steven Usdin in his book Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections between Espionage and Journalism in Washington.
Professional ethics may be overridden by what some journalists consider their higher moral duty.
While journalists are not spies or combatants, they are citizens — or in an Aristotelian analysis, “political animals.” According to Aristotle:
“[T]he city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a city through nature rather than chance is either a mean sort or superior to a man; he is ‘without a clan, without law, without hearth’ like a person reproved by Homer; (10) for the one who is such by nature has by this fact a desire for war, as if he were an isolated piece in a game of backgammon” [emphasis added]
To Aristotle, the political community is constituted for more than commerce. It is a partnership established by the “sharing of a certain perception of the good and the right way of life,” writes political theorist Carnes Lord.
For Aristotle, humans, as political animals, are more than creatures with social or political inclinations. The political community is the primary expression of human nature.
In this respect, a journalist, who is also a citizen, may set aside her professional ethics and become a John Scali, an ABC News correspondent who acted as a go-between for the U.S. with the former U.S.S.R during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Or she may become like Whittaker Chambers, a journalist cum disaffected Communist party member and Soviet spy, who accused a Department of State official Alger Hiss of being a Communist and Soviet spy; or Robert Allen, an American journalist, who started spying for the USSR in 1933.
And, what about those journalists, who set aside their professional ethics to defend or criticize the government, or at the very extreme, become traitors to their own political community?
Even journalists, who would not be best described as domestic partisans, may feel compelled to forgo professional ethics in pursuit of a higher moral duty.
Journalists in war zones, for example, may observe “unspeakable acts of inhumanity,” writes the president of the Ethical Journalism Network, Adrian White.
“Most journalists find it impossible to turn a blind eye to the horrors of war and there are occasions when journalists find their conscience impels them to cooperate with the authorities,” White writes.
Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, for example, who had reported on the Bosnian war in the 1990s, “testified at The Hague before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and helped convict some of the leaders who committed acts of inhumanity and crimes of war during that conflict,” notes White.
Alternatively, others may feel that journalistic professionalism is the higher calling.
Jonathan Randal of the Washington Post, for example, “famously refused to answer a subpoena in 2002 ordering him to appear before the ICTY,” White continues.
Randal was successful in his legal fight against his subpoena, “which was supported by press freedom groups around the world, established some limited legal protection for war correspondents against being forced to give testimony,” White concludes.
Eros and Thumos
To the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, the abstracted permutations of eros (or the drive to possess a greater good) as well as our thumotic instinct (that is, “spiritedness” or “thwarted anger”) are the creators and destroyers of not only the self and the community, but also ethics and politics.
When we feel guilty for doing something wrong, that is thumos turned inwards.
Thumos may also manifest in one incarnation as patriotism, but uncontrolled, jingoism or violent extremism.
The tyrannical nature of both Platonic eros and Platonic and Aristotelian thumos can compel citizens, including journalists, to breach professional ethics or even the law itself in pursuit of a greater good (eros) or justice (thumos).
Eros, for example, may manifest in one incarnation as physical love; but in another, love of what is noble or ideal.
It can also become patriotism or treason (that is love of one’s own country and its laws or a foreign one’s).
There exists, therefore, a “tension between eros and the city,” writes political theorist, Leo Strauss.
For, eros ultimately “obeys its own laws,” notes Leo Strauss.
Eros may even lead one to philosophy (or the love of wisdom); but philosophic eros is also a drive that can be dangerous unchecked, because cynicism and moral relativism may result.
The aim of a moral education and ethics, therefore, (at least for Plato’s Socrates) was to temper eros and thumos in citizens, especially in those who would rule or have power.
Political theorist, Allan Bloom writes:
“Socrates takes a young man tempted by the tyrannic life and attempts to give him at least that modicum of awareness of philosophy which will cure him of the lust for tyranny. Any other exhortation would amount to empty moralism. The young man drawn to tyranny is the illustration of Aristotle’s maxims that man is both the best and the worst of animals, and that the man living outside the city (in the sense of not participating in its law) must be either a god or a beast. In the Republic Socrates has included both god and beast in the city, and this accounts for the difference between his political science and Aristotle. Socrates, unlike Aristotle, makes eros a political principle.”
Adversarialism (Thumos) and Information Asymmetry
In armed conflict, aggression requires its victims to defend themselves by exerting greater force than their oppressors, which is subsequently returned.
American political theorist, Michael Walzer (2015), citing military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, calls this as the logic and tyranny of war.
It compels moral extremity by all, which once unleashed, is not easily subdued.
All kinds of adversarial postures, however, even those well-below war and violence, invite the lost of moral reasoning.
The resulting deficit of moral reasoning can apply to both the justification or the mode or method of an activity in both war or peace, by both belligerent or civilian, including those civilians, who are journalists.
Furthermore, adversarial postures often incite more indignation and ethical extremity by an opponent.
American ethicist, Sissela Bok, writes about adversarial posture between the press and government:
“Some hold that vigilance must be of an adversarial nature — that there can be no truce between politicians and the press. This goes too far, since adversary relations engender so many biases of their own. They lead too easily…to the adoption of quasi-military rationals that blur moral choice. And the adversary posture of one side only intensifies that of the other. Rather than celebrate such a posture as a model, the media might strive for one of vigilant objectivity with respect both to government rationales and to their own. The co-option that is an ever-present danger can come not only from establishment groups but from opposition groups, even from the journalistic fraternity itself.”
More importantly, journalists have said that central to the status-quo pact between media organizations and the government vis-a-vis the balance between secrecy and transparency and self-government and self-defense is self-restraint by both parties.
If war itself is ethically limited under Just War Theory, then journalism cannot justify rendering society, whether international or domestic, a ‘state of nature’ or war.
Similarly, diseconomies of scale concerning secrecy raise the social cost of intelligence activities when they appear to negatively impact civil society, thereby changing social expectations about ethical requirements that should govern their use.
Too much secrecy prevents the government from knowing itself.
Former Senator Patrick Moynihan and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called attention to the deleterious impact that improper classification can have on analytic conclusions and policy formation.
Senator Moynihan also noted that too much secrecy can breed conspiracies and revisionist histories.
Even the obscurity that arises from information glut could arguably lead to a kind of de facto secrecy with similar, concomitant results.
Adversaries and critics can exploit information asymmetries, resulting, for example, from a lack of official responses due to secrecy.
According to a 2013 study, “90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated over” the two prior years.
According to a recent study, “By 2020, its estimated that for every person on earth, 1.7 MB of data will be created every second.”
Adversaries can also exploit an under-resourced media that is overburdened by the volume and velocity of the news cycle: for example, during mass leaks of national defense or confidential information, or even during airpower dominated conflicts when journalists report remotely, skewing the overall balance coverage on specific topics.
On the frontlines of information warfare in the midst of armed conflict, journalists have long come face-to-face with the challenges of accuracy and manipulation, and the value of having professional ethics.
Armed conflict, therefore, may provide a useful model for journalists in today’s information warfare.
“[O]bjectivity has long been a core issue and major preoccupation for journalists covering war and armed conflicts,” writes an expert on journalism and propaganda, Yevhen Fedchenko.
It has also been said that journalists who cover armed conflict strive to “portray events and people in an informed context, avoiding the vivid contrasts that governments [and arguably other actors] prefer in their own black and white visions,” White notes.
For example, during the almost 30-year sectarian conflict that ripped apart Northern Ireland in the 20th century, writes White, journalists who covered the violence, regardless of the editorial stance of their publication “across the sectarian divide,” reportedly maintained a “professional detachment” and “independence,” which “allowed the media to be viewed as something between a necessary evil and a trusted conduit,” writes White.
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