ASK THE FORBIDDEN QUESTION
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 26, 2005 -- The predictable media brush fire broke out when it was revealed last week that the Bush administration has carried out a lot of domestic surveillance without obtaining legal permission. One question isn't being asked so far, even though the wrong answer might trigger a serious impeachment inquiry.
We may consider a historical precedent. The Watergate break-in and its aftermath brought impeachment hearings against President Richard M. Nixon and eventually led to his resignation. It was not so much that government employees or agents had carried out a burglary. There was an implicit understanding during those long Cold War years that the FBI or CIA (or whoever) would do whatever was required to combat foreign espionage. There is a whole genre of spy novels and James Bond movies that condones this sort of activity. President John F. Kennedy, about as well-connected as a guy can be, was a fan of the Bond books.
What made the Watergate break-in special was that it was directed against the President's political opponents. It is one thing to do a little excess diligence in protecting the national security of the United States. It is quite another to undermine the entire democratic structure that we use to choose our leaders.
Even Republicans in the House and Senate were concerned about the precedent that would be set had they failed to act. Not to take action, even up to and including impeachment, would have been to endanger our way of life. That is what people of the day meant when they referred to the situation as a Constitutional crisis.
Rumor has it that the currently circulating NSA story was leaked by NSA employees who were sufficiently concerned about what was taking place that they have placed their careers on the line. There has to be a strong reason. Somebody needs to ask:
If there is truth to the conjectures now circulating, that widespread, massive surveillance of practically all international communications was being carried out, then it is all but a mathematical certainty that some or all of these potential targets had their communications intercepted at one time or another. The only remaining question would be, what was done with that information? Did any of it get reported on up the line?
Any answer in the affirmative would take the scandal to an entirely new level. Someone needs to ask that question and to keep asking it. It would be interesting to see whether we get a strong denial or the usual, "I'm not going to discuss that." Any hint of an affirmative answer will result in an immediate political firestorm.
May I suggest that the White House press corps begin the process?
This is the week that talk of impeachment entered the mainstream media in a serious way. Directly confronting the pseudo-doctrine famously asserted by Richard Nixon, that anything the president does is ipso facto legal, journalists are taking care to point out that the Constitution requires the president to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Even strict constructionists and "original intent" exponents ought to be able to figure out that this phrase means exactly what it says.
In a blow for principle over expediency, the publications writing of impeachment have not been concerned so much over which people were spied on, but on the fact that the spying was done in a clearly illegal way.
It is also the week that opinion writers dusted off an irritating terminology, typing the ugly little phrase "the i word" into their stories as a way to introduce the subject of impeachment. I take this usage to be shorthand for something like the following: "The idea of impeaching President George W. Bush has, up till now, been limited to the angry-bumper-sticker crowd, the extremists who hang out on the far fringe, the people who still want to contest the 2000 election and every 2004 Ohio precinct that didn't go whole hog for Sen. John Kerry. Now, with a direct admission by the President himself of the surveillance, there is something that the political center can get hold of."
If this is what they mean and if that is truly the case, then let's just say "impeachment" from now on.
The genesis of this "On Media" column back in 2003 was the intent to discuss and expose some of the worst aspects of talk radio - its political power, its ability to destroy, its lack of journalistic ethics. In addition, the intent was to point out the inactivity of the mainstream media, including the major daily newspapers and television stations, in failing to wage a counterattack.
As the year 2005 draws to a close, the problem continues.
We may view the culture of talk radio as analogous to an underground economy. Government economists track "above ground" business activity through reported sales and taxes but are officially oblivious to the "underground" cash economy of day laborers, barter, and unreported income.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and their smaller cousins write carefully crafted editorial statements, but the question remains: To whom is the country actually listening?
The fact remains that a sizable fraction of the populace listens to right-wing talk radio (the term is almost a redundancy), and those listeners hear little if any rebuttal within the radio universe.
The mainstream media largely ignore talk radio. There is a danger in being so insulated. The underground economy of talk radio affects our election results and the way that our elected officials behave once they are in office. It deserves serious coverage.
Considering the political power that talk radio has developed, it is gross negligence on the part of the major media, most significantly the big-city newspapers, that they fail to report and respond. It is long since time that a paper like the Times (NY or L.A., take your pick) does a daily report about talk radio, evaluating it for content and style.
Free speech advocates respond to critics by saying, "The response to bad speech is more speech, not censorship." So where is this "more speech" that the idealists keep promising us?
It's not just a theoretical point. Right now, the newspapers and network television have the Bush administration on the defensive over its lies, failures and arrogance of power. Many of the people won't follow, because there is still that "underground economy" of propaganda and lying which we call talk radio.
Newspaper journalists have to begin to understand that talk radio is their enemy. Cynics may point out that often the newspapers and the radio stations are owned by the same company or by a few, barely competing giants.
That is a business issue. But at the level of journalism as craft and ethical ideal, the war is very real. If the talk radio giants have their way, the credibility of the entire newspaper industry, already badly damaged, will be all but destroyed.