Where is the Core of the Debate?: Surveillance and the Media
Writing for the ninth issue of Medium Magazine, AICGS President Dr. Jackson Janes returns to the ongoing, but overshadowed, controversy over NSA surveillance. Edward Snowden has catalyzed the old civil liberties debate by introducing the implications of the digital age. Will this debate last?
The controversy over National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance in and outside of the United States has generated a tidal wave of media coverage on a global scale. It has been particularly emphasized in the European media and especially in Germany. But, coverage in the United States has also been front page news over the last few weeks since the release of Edward Snowden’s revelations.
Snowden himself has become more of a catalyst for a larger debate over the balance between individual privacy, national security, and government surveillance. What happens to Edward Snowden will eventually be a footnote to a longer and as yet unresolved set of questions surrounding the clashes still unresolved between the rights of citizens and the responsibility of the government when it comes to defending a country against threats.
This is not a new discussion in the United States. We have had it since the inception of the republic over two centuries ago. It has been about alleged external threats as well as internal dangers to the country. We have seen the national debates produce good and bad results. The demands of war mobilized the country to respond and defeat its enemies — as it did in World War Two or during the Cold War. But, those same threats also caused the country to overreact in ways which produced the forced incarceration of U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage or the bullying of others by the fear mongering of anti-communist zealots like Senator Joe McCarthy. It took a while, but the United States found ways to correct itself and those overreaches, which were at once both the responsibility of political leaders and the public that supported them at the time.
Over the entire stretch of American history, the media in the United States has always been a tool — for better or for worse — in this constant debate over the rights of both citizens and the government. It has fomented passions on both sides of the equation. For the first hundred and thirty years of the national debate, it was found in the written word in newspapers — then came radio, followed by television.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the tools of both radio and television became the dominant vehicles of informing and influencing public opinion in the United States. The proliferation of those tools was enhanced by cable television in particular which, along with the expansion of radio channels, opened the doors to unlimited channels of information. As the twenty-first century began, even more sources of communication became part of the scene as social media exploded onto the stage.
All of this also became a high stakes platform for enormous amounts of money to be made within the competition for audiences, a development which has left the print media lagging behind and with decreasing sources of revenue in the expanded competition.
With this background, understanding the ferocious arguments emerging around the NSA surveillance issue takes on new dimensions.
The expansion of the media platform has resulted in an increasingly fragmented set of arguments about any controversy in general, compartmentalizing both the arguments and the audiences. Hence, the NSA debate is immediately absorbed into arguments and ideologies concerned with far more than surveillance questions. It becomes part of the larger battle between Republicans and Democrats posturing over the next election cycle. It becomes part of the debate between those anti-government parties and those supporting a more expansive government role in society — both sides arguing about completely different issues, such as health care or even social policies like abortion.
Both the proliferation of radio talk shows and television cable channels generate shouting matches among ever more separated interest groups more concerned with expanding their base than listening to each other. And, those seeking financial advantage among the media moguls and the advertisers they want to attract fuel this fire as both are focused on higher ratings and more eyeballs and ears drawn to their outlets.
Of course, politicians are forced to respond to this development and are challenged by the various media stages to perform for both the larger audiences as well as for their respective voters to whom they have to turn in order to be re-elected.
Within such an increasingly argumentative and polarized environment, the original set of debate issues gets lost. Finding common ground is that much more difficult.
One can argue that today’s citizen has far more opportunity to inform himself through an unlimited range of resources when it comes to any issue including the privacy versus security debate. At the same time, the seduction of tunnel visions in which one can find comprehensive confirmation of views is also possible for citizens, who do not wish to engage in debating same. The media landscape offers both options.
To repeat, Edward Snowden may have acted as an unwitting catalyst for a discussion which is both old and new. But, his role will not be remembered as much as the debate itself. When the Washington Post decided to reveal the Pentagon Papers forty years ago, it raised a set of questions which reached ultimately into the White House and unseated a President. However, the lasting legacy was the affirmation of a free press to raise questions, inform the public, and live up to one of the basic cornerstones of a transparent democratic system of government. That includes raising questions about the nature of threats and dangers as defined by the government and the kinds of tools needed to respond to them — checked with accountability to those who are supposed to be protected.
It was the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who warned the newly formed nation
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
In today’s world, in which all are challenged by all kinds of new threats and dangers, the equation between citizen and government can only remain fully intact if there is a consensus on trust and accountability. In his recent press conference, President Obama stated.
“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these [surveillance] programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well,” But, as Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson commented ” if this is truly what he believes, he should have kicked off this confidence-building debate years ago, long before former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden blew the whistle.”
That is what should be the focus of the discussion. It should be one that we share with our partners in other democracies as well as it is not going to be solved within national borders alone.
Yet, I fear that this debate will be overshadowed by the means of the media instead of the ends that they should serve.