The story of Sibel Edmonds is a remarkable example of how the executive branch has succeeded (so far) in stifling voices it doesn't want heard, and a potentially damning indictment of the media outlets that seem to be cooperating. If you haven't heard of her don't feel too badly - she hasn't gotten the kind of attention reserved for, say, Michael Bloomberg's latest inscrutable indication on whether or not he'll run for President. Her story was initially publicized by 60 Minutes in August 2004 and a year later in Vanity Fair. Edmonds was a translator at the FBI's language division, and the 60 Minutes piece reported on potentially large levels of incompetence, corruption and security breaches there. The Vanity Fair piece elaborates on it considerably, even expanding the corruption angle to the highest levels of Congress.
Since then no major American media outlets have reported on it, and it created the kind of cognitive dissonance that led me to make the dreaded blogosphere a staple of my news diet. It also is the kind of situation that compelled me to begin posting and attempt to add my voice (however small) to the marketplace of ideas. The story as outlined above is extraordinary, right? After the biggest terrorist attack in our country's history one of our key intelligence agencies is unable to keep up with its work, possibly compromised by double agents, arrogantly unwilling to examine itself and potentially riddled with corruption. That's really big news, right? In the romanticized model of journalism we've heard so much about there should be a pack of intrepid reporters tracking this down, fleshing it out and putting together pieces of the puzzle, right? Wrong. It just disappeared. It dropped off the radar altogether.
At this point Brad Friedman at the Brad Blog picked up the story and stayed on it. The administration invoked the state secrets privilege (which I'm not too fond of) in an attempt to silence her. Last October she announced she would defy the Justice Department and speak: "Here's my promise to the American Public: If anyone of the major networks --- ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, FOX --- promise to air the entire segment, without editing, I promise to tell them everything that I know." The story just gets more bizarre from there. You now have someone volunteering to do an explosive interview on the most-discussed issue of our time. No one needs to get sore legs chasing the story, just have her come in, sit her down with one of your stars and let 'er rip. Instant journalism! No takers.
Finally, this week the Sunday Times reported her allegations "about how corrupt government officials allowed Pakistan and other states to steal nuclear weapons secrets." Surely this will get the American media's attention, right? No. Your best source for information is still the Brad Blog. This is not an isolated case, either. Increasingly we will have to rely on a very wide variety of sources for information on relevant topics. Last week I wrote about Marcy Wheeler's timelines of executive malfeasance and Josh Marshall's tracking of the US Attorney firings. If there's a big trial we may be lucky enough to have Christy Hardin Smith liveblogging it. All these folks write about many different topics but have devoted particular attention to certain ones and are producing great investigative journalism that you literally cannot find anywhere else.
Not too long ago an anonymous rival said of an aging football player, "he's retired but he doesn't know it." That fate has befallen the current generation of high-profile news media stars. Their analysis has been consistently wrong and constrained by their own exotic insider mentality. Their colleagues on the front page haven't suffered that fate, but their importance could radically diminish over time. The more issues they abandon, the more other outlets gain when they pick up the slack. The news gathering and reporting infrastructure at large outlets means they can continue to be significant actors for now at least, but that isn't preordained. If they focus on polls, horse races, transcription, gossip, sensation and "news you can use" they will abandon one of the most important roles the media can play in a democracy: A voice of skepticism and a check on power. Would the administration have gotten away with politicizing intelligence if there had been aggressive follow up to Sibel Edmonds' allegations? Would the politicization of the Justice Department have even gotten off the ground? How about warrantless wiretapping, torture or obstruction of justice? There are any number of executive power abuses that may have been prevented by a more vigilant press. Some have stepped in to compensate but it is no substitute for the largest outlets playing this vital role. We are worse off for it.