Government leaks and control of the media

It is common knowledge that large corporations employ “spin machines” or marketing arms that serve to promote the company via various ingenious methods. A common method of marketing is “leaking” information to the media. Leaks most often involve news related to the company itself but many times the leaks may pertain to competitors instead.

What may not be clear to some is the fact that government entities also employ spin machines and are masters at leaking information to the public. Much of the news in the national media is leaked or spurred by government entities. With the journalist bravado of protecting the source at all costs, the true source of news items is often never known. According to Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Presidential Library, “As long as there have been presidents and the press they have been exploiting each other and professing to be shocked when they were caught at it.”

This manipulation of the press by the government may be shocking or even a bit scary to some. It should be a source of concern but you should also assume that it is going to happen no matter what. If the public is aware of the practice, that knowledge can be used when “deciphering” news related content. The news may not necessarily be untrue, but the motive behind the story should be carefully considering before forming a related opinion. (On the other hand, some leaks may be totally untrue and often pass through media editors unscathed. Thomas Jefferson once said that the only thing he read for the accuracy was the advertisements.)

Governments may use news leaks to pressure other governments or countries. The Dwight Eisenhower administration once used New York Times correspondent James Reston to send a clear signal to the Chinese government regarding the Korean peace talks. Reston was called to a one-on-one meeting in the presidential office. The message passed on personally from Eisenhower to Reston was that Washington was growing impatient with the Korean peace talks and that the use of nuclear weapons was being considered. Regardless of whether or not the use of weapons of mass destruction were actually an option, the Chinese government had to take the news as it was delivered and act accordingly. Ironically, years later, Reston wrote another New York Times story based on leaked information that Eisenhower did not particularly care for. In response to the public Eisenhower complained, “Who the hell is Scotty Reston to tell me how to run the country?”

Governments may use news leaks to focus public attention, whether that attention is waning or not, on their programs and plans. In early 2007, a prominent United States company was slated to release a news item regarding global warming and environmental efforts. The day the news release was slated to appear in the press was also the day the Whitehouse was slated to present a presidential address to the American public. In an effort to reduce the media coverage and influence of the company’s environmental news release, Washington “leaked” the story to the press days before the desired release date. Hence, Washington was able to “kill’ the story before it even appeared in the press.

Washington often leaks news items to national media in order to gain public support for unpopular plans or objectives that it may be seeking. For instance, in early 2007, the Whitehouse was fighting a losing battle against the American public and the Democrat empowered congress with regards to the direction of the Iraq war. The Whitehouse, against public demands, wanted to send thousands of additional United States troops into Iraq. Congress, bowing to public opinion and in an effort to win the accolades of the public, wanted a planned withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Days before the presidential address, the Whitehouse leaked a story regarding Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr returning to the Iraq parliament. Al-Sadr was a staunch anti-American who had withdrawn from the Iraq parliament after the Iraq president held a one-on-one meeting with United States president George Bush. The leak was intended to “scare” the American public and present a façade that the leadership of Iraq was drifting towards a terrorist based, anti-American council. This news item was promptly run in all national media outlets and in most cases, was front page news.

And of course, government leaks also serve to pummel their opponents. In an era where “top secret’ is often used to hide embarrassing governmental mistakes, leaks can serve to embarrass or deride public officials. In 2002, the Justice Department, with support and pressure from the Bush administration, targeted Senator Richard Shelby as the source of a national security leak to the press and two television networks. After a lengthy investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee closed the investigation without assigning blame to any one individual. It is supposed that the Senator had used the leak to embarrass the Whitehouse administration while the Bush administration had used leaks to pressure the Justice Department during their investigation. The news item that was “top secret” and illegally leaked to the press? Messages intercepted by the National Security Agency the day before the infamous September 11, 2001 attacks against the World Trade Towers. The communication messages that were intercepted were poorly handled by the NSA and once leaked to the public, demonstrated governmental deficiencies in the protection of the American public. What did the messages, sent the day before the attacks say? Written in Arabic on September 10, 2001, one message stated “the match begins tomorrow” while another said, “tomorrow is zero day.”

Are government leaks powerful, effective, just, moral? Consider the Watergate scandal that brought President Nixon to his knees. It all began with leaks to the media which spurred the Watergate investigation and eventually culminated in one of the most embarrassing debacles in United States history. Are leaks effective? Certainly. But whether just or moral is altogether another question. President Roosevelt was a master of leaks and often called reporters into his office for release of information. His only stipulation was that he would not be directly reported as the source but rather, the “source” was to be attributed as a high administration source. All reporters played the game because they knew if they did not, they would receive no information at all from the Whitehouse.

The leaking of information by governments is common and is to be expected. What the public must understand is that there is always a motive behind these leaks. The public must be intelligent enough to dissect the national (and local) news to glean not only the factual content but also the motive behind the stories that they present.
 

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