By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
So the FBI keeps a fleet of surveillance planes, some of which have technology that can spoof cell towers and find out who’s talking (or just carrying a phone) on the ground below. Who knew? Thanks to an Associated Press exposé, now we all do. This worthwhile investigation adds to the already considerable body of knowledge we have in the post-Snowden world about how our government snoops on us.
There was one aspect to the story that, as a long time journalist, I found interesting, and I’m wondering if anyone else paid much attention. The FBI asked the Associated Press not to reveal any of the names of the fictitious aviation companies involved. The AP reported this request, as you would expect an ethical news organization to do, and went on to partially explain its rejection of it. I say “partially” because the explanation left some unanswered questions.
What specifically worried me was the FBI’s stated concern that revelation of the companies’ identities would create security concerns for the planes—and by reasonable extension, the pilots—and also damage the integrity of any criminal investigations. The AP said it rejected the request on the grounds that the company names it did choose to reveal are listed on public documents. This explanation falls short, though, given that in the very first sentence of its story, authors Jack Gillum, Eileen Sullivan, and Eric Tucker stated that the FBI was using an air force “obscured behind fictitious companies.” The point being: This information was not already public given that the public had not connected the dots. Had it done so there would be no need for an AP exposé.
Now, to those outside the news business, at first glance it might seem improper for a governmental agency to ask news gatherers to withhold the news, or at least certain facts. In actual practice this happens all the time. Requests can range from formal ones presented at the highest levels for reasons of national security, to local incidents. As an a common example of the latter, police often ask live TV crews not to show police positions during hostage crises and so on. Ethical news organizations always listen to such requests and weigh them carefully.
This is supposed to be true even in the post-Snowden world, where many people trust government less than they used to. Some people consider Snowden to be a great American hero. Personally, I have a problem reconciling that label with his current choice of address, but that’s just me. One thing Snowden definitely is not is this: He’s no journalist. A journalist is expected, by the various codes of ethics we follow including the RTDNA’s, to act responsibly. Often that means weighing the potential harm our reporting might do against the potential benefit. By most accounts, whatever public good he may have accomplished, Snowden also did a lot of collateral damage to U.S. interests in his wholesale release of state secrets.
But journalists are expected to follow higher standards. So I wanted to know: Did the AP, in this new “what is the government doing to us?” environment, act too quickly in rejecting the FBI’s request? What steps did it take to carefully consider the matter?
The need to weigh these kinds of ethical problems is so common in our industry that the widely-respected Poynter Institute has developed an excellent set of guidelines for how to get through such a process. And the Poynter journalists offer this recommendation: When addressing an issue on which the news editors and reporters may not have direct expertise, they should consider seeking outside counsel in the form of a disinterested third party who does know something about the subject. The idea here is to get a good understanding of what harm the story might do in order to weigh that against the potential public good.
It’s great advice. Did the AP do that?
I wrote Jack Gillum, one of the three authors of the report, and asked for an interview. He passed me off to Washington-based investigative editor Ted Bridis, of whom I asked these questions: Did the AP put the FBI request through a formal process for ethical decision making? Did it seek outside expertise? Does it consider the FBI’s security concerns invalid? And does its decision to go forward say anything about AP’s assessment of the public propriety of the FBI program?
Alas, the statement I got back sidestepped most of those questions and merely repeated what the authors had already said in their story. Bridis wrote, “As AP always has done, we carefully consider requests from the U.S. government or other subjects of our reporting to withhold information that might be dangerous or damaging if published. In this case, we participated in lengthy, well intentioned discussions with the FBI and separately among senior AP managers....” He repeated that some of this information was available elsewhere, and then added, “We noted the FBI’s concerns in our story.”
Noting the concerns does not address the concerns, and the statement did not answer my questions. So we are left to wonder whether the AP shares the FBI’s worry that its story might damage the FBI operations and present security concerns, and if it doesn’t, then how the AP reached that judgment.
In a post-Snowden world, do we care if a news story puts a ding in the government’s ability to spy on us? Aren’t such programs bad? Shouldn’t the government be forced to stop that? If the AP story accomplishes that, isn’t that a good thing?
The problem is, those questions cannot be answered from the story, which does not give a single example of how information from the surveillance program was used in any actual criminal investigation. So, if you’re the kind of person who goes all hand-wringy and running-in-circles-y over the idea of law enforcement being able to spy on you, you’re going to have that reaction. If you’d like to know more about whether the program has done any actual good for anyone, you’re not in luck today.
Bottom line: AP does not give enough information in its story or in its follow-up answer to allow you to make an informed opinion about whether it was proper to name those companies in disregard of the FBI’s stated concerns. Maybe AP acted fairly and responsibly. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe the FBI’s concerns were overblown. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe a snoopy, inappropriate program will now be rendered less effective. Maybe an important program that protects you in ways you don’t know will be rendered less effective. You can’t know.
Distrust has brought us to this point. The Obama Administration, which pledged to be the most transparent in history, is deemed by many journalists, including this one (who has personal experience with dozens of ignored FOIA requests) to be the opposite. The media would portray themselves as a trustworthy watchdog for government. And those Poynter guidelines I mentioned contain a very good last step toward fostering that trust, encouraging news organizations to be able and willing to explain their actions to the public. I do tend to trust the Associated Press, which has done much to adhere to traditional values in an Internet-frenzied, 24/7, always on, always now, hypercompetitive journalism world that’s quickly losing its collective mind. But even so, I submit the AP could have, and should have, done more to explain itself here.
I think there are two lessons to be learned. One, just because we know we can’t always trust our government doesn’t mean that anything a government official says can be discounted out of hand as being untrue. As it was before Snowden, we have to know more before making those kinds of judgments. Second, even though the American press is still the best in the world—despite its modern problems—it can’t take the public’s trust for granted, either. Transparency is called for on all sides.
From the media, such transparency should be easier to get. Not harder.
Forrest Carr is a former TV news director who writes novels and blogs. You can find his musings on The Bashful Bloviator.