It’s time to put some of the myths of the fourth estate to rest. Reporters are spies. They are not neutral political actors.
An FBI administrator, Mark Felt, transferred the critical information relating to the Watergate scandal to Woodward and Bernstein, who were only acting as intermediaries for the damaging material.
Journalistic cover is frequently used by all international governments because it tends to provide access and mobility to notable figures. Journalistic visas can make it easier for such people to cross borders. Especially in a time of shrinking foreign bureau budgets, international correspondents often have to lean on the informational resources of foreign embassies more and more — much like spies.
In a non-democratic political order, the notion of reporter as spy, whether public or private, is less objectionable, because they have no sacred political mission that they are supposed to be attending to, no public-minded purpose. They can work to inform or misinform, pushing events this way and that way, with no expectation on the part of the readership (no matter how small or large) of objectivity, which is an absurd notion in any case.
Once you accept the mental model of reporter-as-spook, purported misbehavior on the part of said reporters becomes much less upsetting. If you accept that the reporter is just an unpaid (and sometimes a paid) intelligence stringer, you can stop getting so upset and whiny when they do their job of promoting the mission of their handling agency.
In the case of reporters like Judith Miller, she just did her job as a CIA stringer. That her reporting did some damage to the reputation of the New York Times is less relevant than that she succeeded in fulfilling the CIA’s mission at the time, which was to furnish the Bush administration with a usable casus belli to justify the planned Iraq invasion. Her behavior is only upsetting if you have some sort of expectation for reporters to be honest informers of the ‘public.’
In the case of someone like Ezra Klein, he was simply doing his job promoting the full socialization of the medical industry, to facilitate the passage and implementation of the legislation in question. If he lied and fudged some numbers, he was just doing his job, which does not include telling the truth. He would be performing his job poorly if he were to tell the truth rather than to execute his mission.
Frankly, the notion of ‘public’ only has any value if citizenship is treated as something that is valuable. If anyone with a heartbeat is a citizen with the full rights of a citizen, it should not be a surprise when political authorities treat the informing of the general mass of heartbeat-citizens as a low priority.
The difficulty there, from the perspective of intelligence work, is that using reportorial cover ceases to be effective when people anticipate it, or otherwise assume that it’s being used. Once this happens, especially if that method of cover is abused too frequently, foreign powers will simply expel your journalists on the assumption that they are spies. This can also happen to diplomats if diplomatic cover is abused too brazenly.
As in the case of Pravda, the domestic citizens can also just stop believing everything they read, which happens when the work is sloppily done.
From a formalist perspective, journalists and spies should have a similar job title, because their effective job descriptions are similar. If you realize, for yourself, that the job of the reporter is to serve as the eyes and tongues of the state, their behavior will be far less bothersome to you on an emotional level. Of course they will write and speak as they do — they are simply doing their jobs, according to the nature of the state which they serve.
Bob Wallace says
Felt went after Nixon because Nixon didn’t trust Felt and passed him over for head of the FBI. Obviously, Nixon was right, since the non-Christian Felt turned out to be disloyal and a backstabber.
Toddy Cat says
The true history of the period 1964-1974 (which we often call “The Sixties”) has yet to be written, and Watergate is a big part of this. Felt was certainly a disloyal piece if crap, but I’d be willing to bet he was acting on the instructions of someone else, as well.
David Bullis says
Of course reporters are spies. The job is to uncover information and report it in a manner which will make it likely to be read. Private investigators are also the same job. As with lawyers, who pays is who is represented and who defines the subjects of interest.
The real distinction is how they stand in respect to laws. A spy is legally or physically protected and can risk things that would get a reporter thrown in jail unless he has powerful political support. A private investigator can take risks if the client doesn’t blab his actions.
Oddly, the success of all three jobs depends on the quality of writing: No one is influenced by that which is unread.