The Media Sucks. No. The Media Suck.

Listening to NPR this evening, I heard a good example of one of the most irritating and, frankly, damaging behaviors of the media – parroting assertions made by politicians with no accompanying evidence for, or against, the assertion.

The story that got me thinking was about the detainee interrogation bill that recently passed both houses of Congress. The parroting that got me irritated was the following quote:

“Our most important responsibility is to protect the American people from further attack,” the president said. “And we cannot be able to tell the American people we’re doing our full job unless we have the tools necessary to do so.”

Perhaps its the political reading I’ve been doing lately that makes me feel this way, but I think that this quote is utterly, and obviously, ridiculous. First, there is no single most important responsibility of any branch of government, unless you’re dealing in extremely (and appropriately) vague obligations like ‘upholding the constitution’. Second, even if there were a single most important responsibility of, say, the executive branch, it would not be at all straightforward to decide what it is. Third, even if the appropriate calculations have, somehow and in some trustworthy way, been done, no one in the Bush administration, the House, Senate, court system, or any state government has provided an ounce of evidence or argument that protecting the American people from attack is, in fact, the single most important responsibility. As stated in the Cato dispatch:

In “Assaults on Liberty,” Robert A. Levy, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, argues: “In the post-9/11 environment, no rational person believes that civil liberties are inviolable. After all, government’s primary obligation is to secure the lives of American citizens. But when government begins to chip away at our liberties, we must insist that it jump through a couple of hoops. First, government must offer compelling evidence that its new and intrusive programs will make us safer. Second, government must convince us that there is no less invasive means of attaining the same ends. In too many instances, those dual burdens have not been met.”

At first glance, it appears that even the Cato fellows (this one, anyway) are buying the assertion that so bothers me, but if you read carefully, it’s clear that Levy’s assertion is much broader than Bush’s. Saying that “government’s primary obligation is to secure the lives of American citizens” is vague, likely intentionally so. The case can easily be made that “securing the lives of American citizens” is not coextensive with waging a war on terror. For example, it also involves providing and maintaining a legal system – courts, police, and the like – to protect private property rights. It seems to me that this kind of security is every bit as important as, if not more important than, fighting a ‘war’ against a tactic, engaging, at extremely high cost, an enemy that is nowhere near as powerful as those prosecuting the ‘war’ would have us believe.

Bush’s assertions – and the willingness of pretty much every media outlet to repeat them without critical commentary – are all the more galling given that our invasion and occupation of Iraq is making the threat of terrorism worse. Worse still, the Bush administration is not only not willing to put the security of basic constitutional rights on par with their favored narrow construal of security as pertaining only to the threat of terrorism, they are willing, even eager, to cause injury to these basic rights. From Unclaimed Territory:

…as Law Professors Marty Lederman and Bruce Ackerman each point out, many of the extraordinary powers vested in the President by this bill also apply to U.S. citizens, on U.S. soil.

As Ackerman put it: “The compromise legislation… authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any other of the normal protections of the Bill of Rights.” Similarly, Lederman explains: “this [subsection (ii) of the definition of ‘unlawful enemy combatant’] means that if the Pentagon says you’re an unlawful enemy combatant — using whatever criteria they wish — then as far as Congress, and U.S. law, is concerned, you are one, whether or not you have had any connection to ‘hostilities’ at all.”

This last point means that even if there were a habeas corpus right inserted back into the legislation (which is unlikely at this point anyway), it wouldn’t matter much, if at all, because the law would authorize your detention simply based on the DoD’s decree that you are an enemy combatant, regardless of whether it was accurate. This is basically the legalization of the Jose Padilla treatment — empowering the President to throw people into black holes with little or no recourse, based solely on his say-so.

The silver lining? The related warrantless eavesdropping bill likely will not be passed before recess. Let’s hope we can get some good old-fashioned gridlock in place this November to keep this travesty from becoming law. And lets hope that, somehow, court challenges to the detainee bill start repairing the damage soon.

I would like to think that, agree with the point of view or not, if we had more of this kind of behavior in the media, we’d have less of the kind of behavior described above in the goverment. That’s probably wishful thinking, but it bothers me greatly that the media, whose freedoms are ensured precisely so that they can be adversarial with respect to the government, are typically all too willing to abstain from critical thought.

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