When the USA Patriot Act* was rushed into law after the September 11 attacks, the erosion of civil liberties the Act represented—the broad powers it gave law enforcement to spy on people, and the creation of the dangerously ill-defined crime of “domestic terrorism”—met with little detailed scrutiny or principled challenge from major media.
Typical at the time was a Today show segment (NBC, 10/27/01) in which anchor Soledad O’Brien grilled a concerned legal advocate, “But, certainly, isn’t there a sense in wartime that you have to give up some of your privacies, especially when you’re talking about terrorists who exploited the freedoms that America offers in order to perpetuate their terrorist acts?”
When provisions of the Patriot Act were extended in May 2011, most people didn’t hear even a lopsided debate. NBC Nightly News (5/27/11), for one, focused its report on the presidential autopen used to sign the legislation.
The intervening decade has seen an expansion in federal law enforcement powers, combined with a cloaking of their operations, that is startling to many. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s Shahid Buttar (Truthout, 4/15/11) notes that Patriot Act provisions have been reauthorized three times “despite an equal number of Justice Department reports revealing massive and systemic abuses.”
Throughout this time, elite media’s fealty to official rationales and their anemic defense of the public’s rights have amounted to dereliction of duty. Writ large, it has meant accepting the undefined, unending “war on terror” as a challenge-proof premise for significant changes to U.S. law and policy, and dutifully censoring information the White House (whoever’s in it) wants held back, be it evidence of illegal wiretapping (Extra! Update, 2/06) or the location of a secret war’s drone base (FAIR Blog, 7/27/11).
Day to day, it’s meant treating the dismantling of democratic processes more or less like a series of unavoidable weather events, with intermittent editorial protests petering out into vague calls for “further review.”
Elite media seem unable to sustain the appropriate outrage, an attitude expressed inadvertently in a New York Times book review (6/12/11). “You don’t have to drink your fair-trade coffee out of a Morning Edition mug” to acknowledge the point of David Shipler’s The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties, Times reviewer Jonathan Mahler obliged, yet he still found the information somehow less than compelling: The grievous erosion of civil rights of the last 10 years is “scandalous stuff, but perhaps not of the sort that moves merchandise.”
If the 2001 press corps seemed to accept that “there will be a cost to our civil liberties,” as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell flatly declared (9/21/01), subsequent years have been spent mainly whistling past the wreckage.
In early 2002, for example, ABC World News Tonight (1/16/02) told viewers that a report from Human Rights Watch
That’s a bold tweak on the report, which singled out the United States for “inspiring opportunistic attacks on civil liberties around the world.” A less euphemistic account in the London Guardian (1/17/02) noted the report’s charge that “dictators ‘need do nothing more than photocopy’ measures introduced by the Bush administration.”
A subsequent Human Rights Watch report (8/02) documenting violations of due process—including arbitrary, secret detentions—in the treatment of post-9/11 detainees was largely ignored (FAIR Advisory, 8/26/02). Some might attribute the lack of pickup to the fact that the victims described were mainly Muslim noncitizens. That wouldn’t excuse it, clearly, or explain the similar lack of interest when U.S. citizens were caught up in the sweep.
Washington, D.C., police carried out an evidently illegal and politically motivated detention in September 2002, arresting en masse hundreds of participants in a non-violent protest against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, along with bystanders and journalists (Extra!, 11-12/02). The arrested were handcuffed and shackled, denied food and legal counsel.
With few exceptions, media reaction was either to normalize such abuse, as when a CNN reporter (9/27/02) explained that mass arrests have “become part of the ritual” at international finance meetings, or to suggest abuse was earned, as on MSNBC (9/27/02), where “the question is, do the demonstrators have some legitimate gripes or are they just a bunch of opportunistic hooligans?”
Media downplayed the impact of measures like the Protect America Act of 2007, which allowed near open-ended surveillance of emails and phone calls, by interpreting them narrowly, as involving only “communications between potential terrorists” (CBS Evening News, 8/4/07), or “government’s power to eavesdrop on foreign terror suspects” (ABC World News, 8/5/07), explained Aziz Huq of the Brennan Center for Justice. And that’s a key problem.
“As soon as you say somebody’s a terrorism suspect, well, that’s the end of it, we don’t need to worry about them,” Huq told CounterSpin (8/10/07):
The problem the media rarely pick up on is the government thinks people are suspects all the time, and it’s often wrong. [That’s] the whole point of having processes, the whole point of having institutions, the whole point of having a Bill of Rights.