Civil Liberties

Elite Journalists Love Big Brother

Prominent reporters and powerful officials know each other, share attitudes, and trust each other.


Journalists aren't always consistent fans of liberty; over a century ago, The New York Times editorialized against self-defense rights—a tradition it continues today. Still, in the past when there was more ideological variety among elite media than now (a flaw alternative outlets seek to address), reporters from all sorts of publications generally favored free speech, opposed broad surveillance, and supported restrictions on search and seizure. If nothing else, they knew they were high on the list of targets for abusive officials. But that was then; now, elite media love Big Brother.

On Independence Day, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty issued a powerful First Amendment decision in an ongoing case brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana. "If the allegations made by Plaintiffs are true, the present case arguably involves the most massive attack against free speech in United States' history" he said of government pressure on social media companies to suppress speech at odds with official messaging. The judge barred further arm-twisting, though with significant exceptions. It was a clear win for free speech, which you would expect to be applauded by people who make their living from speaking and writing. That's not what happened.

Free-Speech Practitioners Who Don't Like Free Speech

"The Donald Trump-appointed judge's move could undo years of efforts to enhance coordination between the government and social media companies," The Washington Post huffed in its report.

The "ruling that could curtail efforts to combat false and misleading narratives about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues," agreed The New York Times. Apparently, government officials are entitled to decide what constitutes truth and falsehood.

On July 5, Reason's Matt Welch appeared on a CNN panel discussion of the case to take the minority view (among the participants) that it's actually bad when governments muzzle views they don't like.

"We have a legal category of journalists for more speech regulation. It's just bizarre to me," he said.

Journalists for more speech regulation are eyeing podcasts, too, through which "misinformation about everything from election fraud to Covid-19 vaccines is reaching millions of Americans," according to Agence France-Presse. The problem is that "anybody can be a podcaster, anybody can get a microphone and start talking about whatever they want" we're warned in a piece that again assumes accusations of "misinformation" are the same as proof.

What's a Little Snooping Among Friends?

It's not just speech, either. On July 3, The New York Times weighed in on the continuing debate over domestic surveillance conducted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Gray Lady's take on legal snooping provisions specifically called out as dangerous by whistleblower Edward Snowden is that (did you see this coming?) they're in peril from overwrought lawmakers.

"An intensive drive by right-wing Republicans in Congress to vilify the F.B.I. with charges of political bias has imperiled a program allowing spy agencies to conduct warrantless surveillance on foreign targets, sapping support for a premier intelligence tool and amplifying demands for stricter limits," wrote the Times's Karoun Demirjian.

The report went on to allow that many Democrats also oppose Section 702 and spying that often ensnares Americans. But the piece's overall framing is of necessary legislation freshly at-risk from "a new generation of Republicans less protective of Washington's post-9/11 counterterrorism powers."

We should have anticipated this moment. In 2013, even as the paper's own reporters helped publicize Snowden's revelations about the surveillance state, The Washington Post editorial board sniffed that "the first U.S. priority should be to prevent Mr. Snowden from leaking information that harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operations." All of this journalism is fine and dandy, they suggested, but it's inconvenient for the nice people in government office.

In fact, that's probably a fair assessment of the attitude of name-brand journalists towards their friends who wield coercive power—and they are friends, if not more.

The Blurry Line Between Government and Elite Media

"The flow of faces and names between government and 'news' media has turned what was supposed to be a watchdog over the destructive power of the state into little more than a forum for political marketing and an extended battleground for factional fighting," I noted in 2019. In particular, Politico media writer Jack Shafer observed in 2018, TV news networks are heavily leavened with former (and often future) security state apparatchiks. "Almost to a one, the TV spooks still identify with their former employers at the CIA, FBI, DEA, DHS, or other security agencies and remain protective of their institutions" Shafer wrote. "This makes nearly every word that comes out of their mouths suspect."

Many elite journalists can get quotes from politicians across the breakfast table. CNN's Christiane Amanpour married former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell married former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and Joe Scarborough (formerly a congressman) married co-host Mika Brezezinski (daughter of a former national security advisor). The Washington Post's Matea Gold is married to FBI chief of staff Jonathan Lenzner. "What to make of all the family ties between the news media and the Obama administration?" The Washington Post's Paul Farhi asked a decade ago in a query that could be posed continuously about government and media in general.

Prominent journalists and government officials often meet not on the job, but in the college dorm. "Forty-one percent of senior- or mid-level Biden White House staffers — or 82 people out of 201 aides analyzed — have Ivy League degrees," Politico reported in 2012. That expands on dominance by elite colleges dating back at least to JFK. And many faces those Ivy League grads saw in the White House press room were familiar. "Almost half of the people who reach the pinnacle of the journalism profession attended an elite school," found a 2018 paper in the Journal of Expertise focused on The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. "Roughly 20% attended an Ivy League school."

To a great extent, interactions between prominent reporters and powerful officials are like private parties that never end. These people know each other, drink with each other, share attitudes, marry, and trust each other. Elite journalists have few doubts about the wisdom of their friends, for whom they do glorified public relations, to censor, spy, and coerce. About the rest of us… Who are we, anyway? Better to be safe and encourage the folks they know to keep a cap on the unseemly mob.

If You Want News, Look Elsewhere

Let's emphasize that "elite journalists" doesn't mean the folks struggling to keep your local paper alive, or determined bloggers covering official malfeasance, or reporters at alternative outlets competing with brand-name operations. They represent a range of views, often–strained relationships with the powerful, and are as vulnerable as you or I to the civil liberties violations championed by legacy media outlets.

But prominent journalists have become cheerleaders for Big Brother because they like and trust his minions more than they care about you and me. If you want support for freedom instead of authoritarianism, or even just skepticism about unrestrained government, look to reporters who aren't so enmeshed with those who wield power.