Part 2- Pressure Points
‘Pressure’ is one of those buzzwords you hear in almost all discussions involving the mainstream media and related topics: Government Pressure, Corporate Pressure, Special Interest & Lobby Pressure, Management Pressure, Colleagues Pressure…It’s always pressure – whether its pressure placed directly on the reporter, editor, or on the board and or ownership…So how does it work? How much pressure? What methods are used? Of course, the answer largely depends on ‘who’ the pressure comes from (government or corporate or …), ‘who’ is the target of the pressure (is it the source, the reporter, etc.). For this post I am going to focus on what’s referred to as ‘government pressure,’ provide you with my take by providing context and case examples, and then let you bring in yours.
Just to make sure you understand – I don’t claim to be an expert, nor do I pretend to have all the right answers. I am drawing upon eight years of direct first hand experience in dealing with the media on my case, four years of interaction with the MSM on and with our organization and our National Security Whistleblowers, and years of association and friendship with many journalists, authors, attorneys and experts active in the area of national security and civil liberties. I am still seeking answers and looking for solutions…
Many cases of the government resorting to intimidation and harassment to prevent a story from coming out go unreported. I suppose this proves the effectiveness of this method. The flexing muscles method ranges from subtle threats to overt harassment. Many of these cases go unreported simply because the ‘pressure’ takes care of the ‘problem,’ and the ‘pressured’ party, either due to the shame of giving in or the fear of ‘further pressure,’ goes mum into their grave.
Here is a case where government agents’ muscle flexing through overt harassment did not go unreported because the target happened to be an investigative journalist with a proven track record and integrity; a rare breed, indeed:
Bill Conroy is an editor at the San Antonio Business Journal and a contributing journalist for Narco News and an author. The Reports Committee for Freedom of the Press was one of very few outlets to report the story of the government’s harassment and intimidation, targeting Conroy for his reporting of a leaked memo regarding the centralized database for tracking terrorists.
“A leaked memo from the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security sparked its officials to interview a writer last month in an attempt to discover his source for an article on the online news service Narco News.”
You can read the story and the leaked memo in question here. The memo divulged that DHS supervisory agents in the field were directed to alter terrorism related files without preserving their original versions. This is equivalent to shredding during the pre-computer era. Rather important, right? The government then sent some agents who apparently were instructed to teach Conroy a lesson or two:
“Two agents came to his home and spoke to his wife while Conroy was at work, and appeared at his office the next day. Conroy, an editor at the San Antonio Business Journal, contributes to Narco News. The agents spoke to Conroy as well as his boss at the Journal in an apparent attempt to intimidate him into revealing his source, said Ron Tonkin, Conroy’s attorney.”
So they send a couple of tough looking agents with a mission to intimidate and harass. Send the agents to the target reporter’s office and have them treat him as a ‘criminal suspect,’ and make sure his colleagues and boss are around to watch… Send them to his house, make sure the neighbors see the agents knock on his door and flash their badges, and instruct them to intimidate the spouse and or the children. You might be surprised to learn how many ‘targeted reporters’ actually do get ‘pressured’ out of reporting in cases like this; how many divulge sources; and how many pledge not to ever enter the ‘no no zone’ again. Bill Conroy didn’t, but Conroy is among a tiny group…
“Bill Conroy did not divulge the source of the leak in his article and refused to when agents visited his home and workplace on May 23 and 24, respectively, asking for his sources in the department.”
And guess what? In the end, they couldn’t do anything to him. Shouldn’t this be a lesson to reporters who follow a different path?
“Although the agents reportedly mentioned speaking to the U.S. attorney, implying they might obtain a subpoena for the information, no such order has been issued. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of the western district of Texas declined comment. Calls to the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Professional Responsibility were not returned.”
Intimidation can also come in the form of a legal bluff. This approach seems to be gaining popularity since the September 11 attacks. The government can, and has been, using ‘National Security’ to declare many embarrassing or incriminating stories ‘classified.’ This allows them to flash their ‘we’ll take you to court’ card, and wait to see whether the target publication or reporter decides to ‘hold or fold or walk away.’
Let’s look at New York Times reporter James Risen’s case:
“A federal grand jury has issued a subpoena to a reporter of The New York Times, apparently to try to force him to reveal his confidential sources for a 2006 book on the Central Intelligence Agency, one of the reporter’s lawyers said Thursday.”
The same article emphasized that this trend is not isolated:
“Mr. Risen, who is based in Washington and specializes in intelligence issues, is the latest of several reporters to face subpoenas in leak investigations overseen by the Justice Department.”
How many reporters can afford the hefty legal fees to fight a case like this in court, when the government has at its disposal unlimited resources in dollars, legal maneuvering expertise, and manpower? Not many, I can assure you. Lucky lucky Risen! As for publications, also not many who’ll be willing. And unfortunately, not many reporters can easily secure pro-bono representation by a civil liberties organization with enough muscle to challenge the government. Thus many at an early stage, when ‘pressured’ by threats of legal action, give in and abandon a story yet to be written. Then add to this the recently revealed NSA targeting of journalists and you get the kind of pressure that may even eliminate the need for legal threats. Just the knowledge of being monitored is enough ‘pressure’ to dissuade many editors and reporters from pursuing‘radioactive’ cases in the first place.
The same government intimidation and threat tactics are also applied to ‘sources.’ Here is a brief account of my own experience:
In 2002, a few days before the airing of the CBS-60 Minutes segment on my case, my attorneys received a letter by fax from the Justice Department attorneys. The letter was to let us know that I would be pursued legally and severely if I went through with this interview. They strongly claimed that any information I was to disclose was being considered ‘classified.’ Of course, my attorneys knew better, and we didn’t bulge. And low and behold no ‘action’ ever came from the government following the airing of the segment. It was bluff, threat and intimidation; just that.
Not only did the government try to stop my appearance on the program, they took similar action with another FBI whistleblower, John Roberts, who also was interviewed for that same segment.
Everyone knows ‘high-level government sources’ to reporters on politics and intelligence related matters is what the rolodex is in business. The net-worth, the value, of these reporters is frequently judged based on their ‘access.’ Sure; it makes sense. First, a reporter tries to make his/her way up the chain and establish the ‘relationship and trust’ necessary for this access. Next, and equally important, is to ‘maintain’ this relationship. This too makes sense, and is part of the job. Now, the question is, at what price? What are the things a reporter is willing to do, how far is he/she willing to go to ‘maintain’ his or her access?
Successful experienced journalists with a solid sense of ethics and integrity are good at ‘balancing’ when it comes to ‘source maintenance.’ This appears to be one of those disappearing qualities within the mainstream media. When the publication, the editors, lean towards, sorry, bend over, the government’s angle on stories, the reporters follow by compromising ‘a lot’ to keep and maintain their news/information ‘feeders’ within the government agencies.
I am going to provide you with another first-hand witnessed and documented incident. The only reason I am not naming ‘the well-known reporter & publication’ is to protect the source who obtained and passed on the incriminating documented evidence – the communication that occurred in writing between him and this particular ‘reporter.’
The individual who dealt with the congressional and press side of my case during the early stages of my whistleblowing journey wrote an e-mail to a well-known and well-placed journalist, saying, ‘Man, I can’t believe you guys did not cover this!!! Ashcroft comes out and invokes the State Secrets Privilege, first time ever asserted by the Bush administration, and you don’t write about it?! What the hell, man?! What’s the deal? I sent you the press release and attached a bunch of documents on that e-mail…’
Here is the response from that well-known journalist, and stupidly enough in writing: ‘I was going to call you. A few months ago I finally got this big DOJ guy, I mean BIG! Our deal-exclusive. You can’t do better than that in Washington. Anyhow, he doesn’t want us to touch Edmonds’ story. Period. I am not going to piss off my source for some God Damn translator whistleblower…’
The reporter’s refusal to cover the story was irrational – the State Secrets Privilege invocation was first released through an official DOJ press release and other major publications ran with the news. So what does this tell you? To maintain high-level government sources well-known reporters cut deals like this: You be my man, and I and what I cover will be yours. Unfortunately, through several reporter friends I was given many more examples and was told ‘that’s the name of the game when it comes to covering politics and government in this city.’
I touched on this type of pressure in the previous piece and in my last op-ed, and the recent revelations on Harman-New York Times provides both the context and case example. The fact that the NSA, DOJ and whatever other agency can softly ask the editors and management of the New York Times to sit on a major story involving criminal government action against it’s own people for over a year, and the request be complied with. The fact that a Congresswoman has enough ‘ins and pull’ to dial the decision-makers’ number at the New York Times and ask them ‘as a favor’ to not publish a story. The fact that a LA Times editor dutifully reports to NSA its source’s disclosure on wiretapping and the AT&T, takes his marching orders, comes back, and kills the story.
You see what I mean? There are many, many ‘soft pressure’ cases out there.
As with the various theories on the factors contributing to MSM degradation, the pressure styles can also be applied in combination. While the Justice Department attorneys are ‘flexing muscles’ by threatening the information source with legal action, their Attorney General or Deputy or whomever can be making his ‘soft’ call to dissuade the editor from moving forward with the story, and their Special Agent in Charge of whatever department may be summoning his ‘pet reporter’ to ban him from working on this same target story.