Wednesday, March 19, 2008

TIME: Do Americans Care When We Tell Them Not To?

Original Ending to Se7en, rejected by test audiences:
Mills: "What's in the box?!?"
Somerset: "I don't know, I didn't open it."
Mills: "Oh -- probably a gift basket. Let's get lunch."

In an absolutely terrible thing TIME poses the question Do Americans Care About Big Brother? When I saw this thing I immediately sent an email to TIME pointing out a factual error. No response, no correction. When I woke up the next morning I saw commenters at TIME's Swampland discussing it and that Glenn Greenwald had already taken it to the woodshed. (Scooped!) I'm not going to repeat his complaints but I will call out the most important ones and take a slightly different angle on the thing in question.

What is this thing I'm reading?

What is this? It's not news; it doesn't contain any timely information. It's not labelled as opinion and is not written in a standard opinion style. I suppose it's "analysis" -- except that it contains no actual analysis.

The primary point of the "analysis" is that Americans don't care about Big Brother. But the article doesn't include a single verifiable fact or any data to support that conclusion. There are no polls cited, no anecdotal interview with a man on the street. Nothing. This is a standard ploy that many pundits have made a career of: speak for "Americans" when the author is really speaking only for themselves.

Regardless of ideology it's just bad journalism.

The conclusion is an example of self-fulfilling prophecy

Even if we grant the dubious conclusion that Americans are eager to trade away privacy for promises of security, that in itself is not surprising or meaningful. The media influences public opinion and media outlets including TIME have spent years excusing privacy violations while dramatizing the threat of the evil terrorists. In the pages of TIME Joe Klein has repeatedly lauded the NSA spying programs, calling them essential to national security even though he knows little about them.

The mainstream media has spent years telling us that 9/11 changed everything, including apparently the Constitution. Mike McConnell, who was caught lying to Congress about these "essential" programs, is still routinely quoted unquestioningly by the media and treated as a reliable source.

For some time after 9/11 most Americans believed that Saddam was personally connected to the attacks. If that's proof of anything it's proof that the government is good at propagandizing and that the media is a credulous enabler.

This TIME article itself makes arguments that Americans should be willing to trade away privacy for promises of security. Is it some sort of revelation if Americans exhibit an attitude that has been beaten into them for years? The article is a trend story that itself perpetuates the trend.

What's inside the box is probably not a gift basket

I won't belabor this point as Glenn covered in depth but without visibility into these programs it's pointless to say that they haven't been abused (which is still false anyway) as that observation is grounded in willful ignorance. The administration has argued that executive actions should remain secret to the point that not even Congress and the Court can know their details. Our information on these programs comes almost entirely from leaks and whistle blowers, which are rare in an administration that has elevated loyalty above competence and ethics.

Before the Walter Reed reporting we as a nation were unaware of the abuse and neglect of our veterans. Before Charles Savage wrote about signing statements few realized that the President was using them to legislate. Investigations into CIA black sites and Abu Ghraib disturbed our theretofore blissful ignorance.

There's one way to know what's inside the box: open it. There's one way to know the extent of abuse in these programs: investigate them. Relying on the administration to voluntarily disclose abuses is inane, especially given that investigators in the executive branch are "emanations of a President's will" with assumedly "no substantial authority independent of President Bush."

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