I have been asked many times about the short period between January 2007 and now. Many wonder "Why now?" The people asking these questions are really wondering what exactly led to this new social development. A culture of leaking, whistle-blowing, and hacktivism targeting censorship, oppression, and human rights violations. There are of course many factors, but one stands out to me and I think it needs to be spread as far and wide as possible. Reporters, journalists, editors, and owners of supposed news organizations are just as responsible as any repressive government or corporation.
It's quite easy to blame the people in power for the problems that exist, and it happens to be the right thing to do. That doesn't answer the question of why all of this activity has been happening though. For those answers we have to take a look at our government here in America. This country was built with three distinct branches of government: legislative, judicial, and executive. Some people refer to the press/news media as the fourth branch of government, most use the more widely accepted term The Fourth Estate.
The separation of our government into three branches was intended to introduce checks and balances against any misuse of power. Specifically the separation of powers was meant to protect the nation against tyranny. We have a French philosopher (Baron Montesquieu) to thank for the basic framework, and James Madison to thank for persuading the framers of the Constitution to use the concept. One missing piece to the checks and balances system was the ability for those on the outside to hold the government accountable for its actions and misdeeds. Some people at the time thought that voting would be enough, but many more knew that it fell far too short. This was fixed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, showing just how important the founders of this nation believed the problem to be. It is very telling that the Constitution was almost not ratified because it didn't contain the amendments that became the Bill of Rights. A compromise was reached that allowed the Constitution to be ratified only if the Bill of Rights would be debated and amended in the first session of the new Congress.
Some of you might be wondering about the need for that bit of history, but I feel it necessary to the argument to impress upon you just how important a free press is to our society.
Now we move forward in time to the beginning of the twenty first century and a point in history where most news organizations are actually entertainment companies or pawns of specific political parties. News in this country and a lot of the world has become a way to influence the public with outright lies or half-truths meant to hide whats really going on. Few members of the press spend their time doing real investigative journalism, while most of their colleagues focus on getting page-views on their web articles. For every Michael Hastings there are a thousand Nick Dentons just looking for page views. It has always been the case that some news was just propaganda, and some just entertainment. But as time has passed the amount of true investigative journalism has steadily declined and sensationalism has seen a meteoric rise.
By 2007 I honestly thought that we had passed a point of no return. There were few journalists that could be respected for their work. One to mention is Joseph Menn who wrote an article titled "The Nation: U.S. Spying Is Much Wider, Some Suspect" for the Los Angeles Times in December 2005. This gave a glimpse of what was being done behind closed doors by our government and its intelligence agencies. A lot more of this would be revealed later by Edward Snowden's leaks. While true investigative journalists willing to stick out their neck to report the truth did exist and still do, they are few and far between.
Without a strong and free press willing to take on the government our nation will fail. The fourth estate is essential to maintain a government accountable to the people. Aristotle stated "Nature abhors a vacuum" and while the truth of his statement was argued by many, it does apply here. The lack of investigative journalism and the press's inability and unwillingness to hold our government to task for its actions left a vacuum. There was a void that needed to be filled. That void grew for years, and finally when we could stand it no more it got filled. The void was filled by Anonymous, Wikileaks, new Whistle-blowers, and a new prevalent culture of transparency. I do not believe that these people, organizations, and movements would have been necessary if journalists and news outlets were doing their jobs. They were given freedoms and protections for a reason, to use them, and when they stopped (for the most part) someone else had to step in.
Our country, and this world, need something to exist that can apply those checks and balances the press were supposed to. So now we find ourselves in a world where hackers and leakers are doing the job the press are supposed to and are getting arrested, because the government doesn't believe they have the same protections given by the First Amendment. Over-prosecution is the main tool of censorship being used against these new movements. Journalists like Barrett Brown having over 100 years of charges piled on him for his work against the surveillance state and its private companies. Michael Hastings dead while working on another big story. Journalists like Glenn Greenwald choosing to live in Brazil instead of America because he can actually remain free there.
So far this has all been doom and gloom, the sky is falling! In reality it's bad, we are getting close to having a government that is beyond fixing. Some will argue that we are already well past that point. I still hold some hope, very little though, for the idea that we can salvage something out of this mess. I believe it starts with new journalists and organizations, like Democracy Now, Pierre Odimyar's project with Glenn Greenwald and others, Amber Lyon's reset.me, and many more. These people could start to fill that void and provide us the kind of reporting and media organizations that we so desperately need. Citizen Journalism is becoming easier every year and with sites like Tarbell anyone can take part. So I think we might be watching part of the answer to our governments excess and outright lawlessness forming over the next few years.
Investigative journalism making a comeback is absolutely great. The fact that we will probably see many more people following in the footsteps of this new batch of proper journalists is amazing. But this is only part of the solution. I don't know what the entire solution looks like, but I think the next piece of this puzzle will be all of us making sure everyone we know actually reads and understands this information. It's great to see it all getting reported, but what value does it have if people like you and me don't spend the time to make sure everyone in our life pays attention? In the end it has no real value without us putting in just as much work as the reporters. Many of the events that we go to, talks that we might give, and conversations that we have end up being echo chambers. I don't need to convince you, I need to convince my mother. And so do you.
I'm going to end this with a list of organizations (mostly non-profits) who need support, volunteers, donations, and more importantly people to respond to their calls for action. Every one of these links below is to a group that works hard to protect our civil liberties and some specifically to protect journalists. If you want to know what you can do to help, visit these sites and sign up. I get between 5-10 emails a day with simple things I can do to help from these organizations (and others.) Most of the things they ask for take no more than a couple minutes, but they help a lot more than you could imagine. This list isn't complete, so please add any others in the comments.
- Fight for the Future by The Center for Rights
- Reporters Without Borders
- Free Press
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Digital Fourth
- Demand Progress
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Electronic Privacy Information Center
- Bill of Rights Defense Committee
- Center for Democracy & Technology
- CREDO Action
- Defending Dissent Foundation
- Government Accountability Project
- Open Media
- Tech Freedom
Image by Mel Green