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How the media "authorize" the abuse of government power

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The story of President Bush deliberately breaking the law to create a domestic spy operation is a lot of different things: it is a tale of power abuse, arrogance, and contempt for the law by an out-of-control president. But it is also a story of how today's major media behave with near total deference to power and its own profit motive. What we are watching, even in the seemingly small details of the coverage, is no less than the media's complicity in helping estsablish a quasi-legal framework for what was a clearly illegal abuse of government power. It is in the clearest sense the media being used as tools of state power in overriding the very laws that are supposed to confine state power.

You might be thinking, "How is that possible? Didn't the New York Times print the story exposing the surveillance program, and doesn't that show the media challenges power?"

Well, not really, when you consider that the Times actually held the story for a year. As the Washington Post reports, the Times' essentially held the story because of exactly what I said: deference to power, and its own bottom line. First, deference: the Times editors now tell us they held the story because the White House told them to. Then, profit: we learn that what changed between now and a year ago was that a Times reporter, James Risen, is about to publish a book about the entire affair and thus publishing the story now will mean maximum pre-sale buzz in January when the book is released - a key for any big book sales.

But even more interesting than these big embarrassing clues about the media's motives are the very small ones. Notice, for instance, that in describing the President's clearly illegal behavior, the media are parroting the White House's terminology - terminology specifically crafted to make it sound as if Bush was operating on quasi-legal grounds.

So for instance, the Times tells us Bush "secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans." The paper also refers to "the powers granted the N.S.A. by President Bush." "Authorized" and "granted." The word "authorize" is defined as "to grant power or authority to," and the word "grant" is the act of giving something one has. The media's use of these terms, then, is the media trying to make the public assume as fact that Bush actually had the power or authority to grant in the first place.

In fact, only until the very end of the Times piece do we get a glimpse that the White House actually knew it didn't have the power or authority to grant, when the Times reports "President Bush did not ask Congress to include provisions for the N.S.A. domestic surveillance program as part of the Patriot Act and has not sought any other laws to authorize the operation." Why? Not because the White House thought a domestic surveillance operation was legal. But because "the proposal would be certain to face intense opposition on civil liberties grounds." They knew it wasn't legal, and they knew it wouldn't be made legal by Congress, but they went ahead and did it anyway. And yet as if playing a role in an Orwell novel, the media is still using terms that imply the President had every legal right to do it in the first place.

Sadly, other major media seem to be parroting this nonsense. The Associated Press, for example, reports that "President Bush said Saturday he has no intention of stopping his personal authorizations of a post-Sept. 11 secret eavesdropping program in the U.S." That's right: "his personal authorizations," as if he can just go around "authorizing" whatever he wants without regard to the fact that such powers are not his to authorize.

But then, we've seen this before. In a famous 1977 interview, Richard Nixon said "When the president does it that means that it is not illegal." At that time, we were lucky Nixon was long out of office and thus unable to turn that contempt for the law into presidential directives. Today, it is different - we clearly have a president with the same attitude, but a president who is still very much in a position to forge that attitude into government policy. And most disturbing of all, we have a media that, because of protive motives and fear of power, are more than happy to help that president publicly justify his disregard for the rule of law.
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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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