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Snowden Coverage: If U.S. Mass Media Were State-Controlled, Would They Look Any Different?

Suggesting a fellow journalist be arrested is a new low in mainstream media.
 
 
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The Edward Snowden leaks have revealed a U.S. corporate media system at war with independent journalism. Many of the same outlets – especially TV news – that missed the Wall Street meltdown and cheer-led the Iraq invasion have come to resemble state-controlled media outlets in their near-total identification with the government as it pursues the now 30-year-old whistleblower.

While an independent journalism system would be dissecting the impacts of NSA surveillance on privacy rights, and separating fact from fiction, U.S. news networks have obsessed on questions like:  How much damage has Snowden caused? How can he be brought to justice?

Unfazed by polls showing that half of the American rabble -- I mean, public – believe Snowden did a good thing by leaking documentation of NSA spying, TV news panels have usually excluded anyone who speaks for these millions of Americans. Although TV hosts and most panelists are not government officials, some have a penchant for speaking of the government with the pronoun “We.”

After Snowden made it out of Hong Kong to Russia, New York Times journalist and CNBC talking head Andrew Ross Sorkin  expressed his frustration: “We’ve screwed this up, to even let him get to Russia.”  By “we,” he meant the U.S. government.

Last time I checked, Sorkin was working for the Times and CNBC, not the CIA or FBI.  

When a huge swath of the country is on the side of the guy-on-the-run and not the government, it’s much easier to see that there’s nothing “objective” or “neutral” about journalists who so closely identify with the spy agencies or Justice Department or White House.

The standard exclusion of dissenting views – panels often span from hawk (“he’s a traitor who needs to be jailed”) to dove (“he may have been well-intentioned but he needs to be jailed”) – offers yet another reason why young people, more libertarian in their views, have turned away from these outlets. Virtually no one speaks for them. While a  TIMEpoll found 53 percent of respondents saying Snowden did “a good thing,” that was the sentiment of 70 percent of those age 18 to 34.

I teach college journalism classes about independent media. New developments like WikiLeaks and independent bloggers like Glenn Greenwald may scare the wits out of establishment media, but they sure don’t scare young people or journalism students. 

As media employees at elite outlets have grown cozier with their government and corporate sources (Sorkin is famously close with Wall Street CEOs), they exhibit an almost instinctual antipathy toward those adversarial journalists who challenge powerful elites day after day.

Look at the reactions of some top mainstream journalists to Greenwald, who built up a big readership as a solo blogger before moving his blog to Salon and then the Guardian, where he broke the Snowden/NSA stories. I know several journalism professors who view Greenwald as one of the world’s best journalists. He’s known as accurate, thorough, well-documented and ethical.   

It was Sorkin, the New York Times guy,  who declared on CNBC that maybe Greenwald should be arrested: “I told you this in the green room – I would arrest him [Snowden] and now I’d almost arrest Glenn Greenwald, who’s the journalist who seems to be out there, almost, he wants to help him get to Ecuador.”

If it’s strange for a journalist to suggest another journalist’s arrest, it was almost as strange when Sorkin wrote in aTimes column that he went down to check out the Occupy Wall Street encampment “ after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank.” Sorkin concluded: “As I wandered around the park, it was clear to me that most bankers probably don't have to worry about being in imminent personal danger. This didn't seem like a brutal group – at least not yet.”