In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the possibility of a democratic nation sliding subtly, almost imperceptibly into a state of dictatorship.
“The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives,” he wrote. “...he exists but in himself and for himself, and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.”
We live in a world where our democracy is under attack, and the attackers are the very men and women we continue to elect to protect our rights. It used to be the place of the news media to keep the government in check, but they have largely abdicated that role, and our freedoms are suffering for it.
With recent revelations about successive presidential administrations using the Patriot Act to spy on our day to day phone records, social media usage, even the books we check out of the library, only the slightest murmurs of protest have been heard. The Patriot Act has been re-authorized, and even strengthened, numerous times by politicians of both political stripes.
When legitimate opposition groups have come to the fore, the government has employed the IRS to make the going as difficult for them as possible.
The revelations about our government’s efforts to spy on its own people have come primarily from two people. The first, Bradley Manning, now sits in a military prison where he is serving a 35 year sentence, and the other, Edward Snowden, is in exile in Russia, likely for the rest of his life. Senators have publicly called for the death penalty for Snowden if he is ever tried here. Neither used an American media outlet to air their information.
The response from the American press? They have been dutifully silent, content to report on the latest petty and paltry pleasures de Tocqueville warned about.
Neither of these men will be confused with John Jay or Alexander Hamilton, but for the current day and age, any voice in the wilderness will do.
From the time of the Federalist Papers, right up to the era of Watergate, the media understood and accepted its role as watchdog, digging to uncover wrongdoing by politicians from either of the ruling parties. It’s now become a lapdog, happy for the occasional morsel that might fall from the table of the ruling elite. Cutting edge journalism has become who gets the newest Anthony Wiener pic out first.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels saw the importance of a complicit media when he wrote: “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which government can play.”
While we have all been collectively distracted by the minutia of our own lives, our government has quietly but decisively learned to play the media like Goebbels’ great keyboard. Even the “opposition media” of AM talk radio serves as little more than a launching pad for the books, CDs, t-shirts and even iced tea hawked by the carnival barkers who pass for the voice of the opposition in this country.
Even on the local level, government controls access to the media with an iron grip. State workers fear for their jobs if they speak to the media. Even the state’s public information specialists cannot answer freely, instead insisting questions be submitted in advance, so answers can be vetted by elected officials, when answered at all. The top DOT official in Essex County recently claimed he was targeted by the state for speaking to the media, and was forced to retire.
Many saw the internet and social media as the last great bastion for democratic thought and political dissent. While that certainly exists to some extent, with the recent revelations of government spying, how long could a political dissident survive online before coming onto the government’s radar screen?
A meaningful national shield law would be the first step to righting this listing ship, if it hasn’t in fact already capsized. There is currently a bill before the shuttered government called the Free Flow of Information Act which, if passed, would be a baby step in the direction of journalistic freedom.
Even if this law is passed, without an aggressive and inquisitive national media, the law would be all but irrelevant. National journalists currently have nothing they need to shield themselves from, except possibly the most recent Anthony Wiener pic.