Opinion

Jack Shafer

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1998 lesson on the price of secrets

Jack Shafer
Dec 27, 2013 15:22 UTC

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and is reprinted with permission.

The ease with which the United States government creates new state secrets masks the ultimate cost of the secret’s production. Once minted, a secret must be guarded lest a spy sneak in and pluck it from the bunch — or a Chelsea Manning, an Edward Snowden, or a lesser leaker with a security clearance release it into the wild. Vaults must be built, moats dug, and guards hired, trained, and paid. Add to that the cost of routine audits, to make sure nobody has picked the locks, and the expense of the annual security clearances for the spooks, bureaucrats, and IT specialists who make, sort, use, and maintain the secrets. At last count, nearly five million people in the U.S. were cleared to access Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret information, a number that includes both government employees (like Manning) and contractors (like Snowden).

Official secrets have been reproducing faster than a basket of mongooses thanks to the miracle of “derivative classification,” and this rapid propagation has compounded the maintenance costs. Whenever information stamped as classified is folded into a new document — either verbatim or in paraphrased form — that new derivative document is born classified. Derivative classification — and the fact that nobody ever got fired for overusing the classified stamp — means that 92.1 million “classification decisions” were made in FY 2011, according to a government report, a 20 percent increase over FY 2010. Once created, your typical secret is a stubborn thing. The secret-makers’ reluctance to declassify their trove is legendary: In 1997, 204 million pages were declassified, but since 9/11 only an average of 33.5 million pages have been declassified annually.

The secrets glut imparts another cost, one that can’t be measured in dollars, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned in his 1998 book, Secrecy: The American Experience. Just as excessive economic regulation blocks efficient transmission of the market’s supply and demand signals, the hoarding of secrets locks vital knowledge away from politicians, policymakers, and the public, who need the best information to conduct informed debates and make wise decisions. However difficult the quandary when Moynihan was writing, it’s much worse now. By FY 2011, the volume of new classified documents created annually had risen to 92 million from six million at the time Secrecy was published.

While Moynihan nurtures a civil libertarian sentiment, his primary thrust is utilitarian: The stockpiling of too many secrets renders the nation less secure, not more, because it forces us to make decisions based on poor-quality information. In our attempts to blind our adversaries, he points out repeatedly, we end up blinding ourselves. The information blackout also hinders the public’s ability to hold the secret-keepers accountable for what they do. Kept too close to the vault, important secrets don’t get properly vetted, which results in policy being sent off course by “incorrect” secrets. (“The mistakes, you see, were secret, so they were not open to correction,” as historian Richard Gid Powers puts it in Secrecy’s introduction.) Secrets prevent sympathetic legislators — here Moynihan was writing about his relationship with President Ronald Reagan — from defending a colleague’s foreign policy positions without knowing what they are. And finally, the routinization of the classified process, this willy-nilly banging of “Secret” on the most banal documents, creates a surplus of secrets that increases the difficulty of protecting the vital ones.

The information singularity is coming!

Jack Shafer
Dec 19, 2013 22:36 UTC

“Data! Data! Data!” Sherlock Holmes cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

The sleuth’s insatiable hunger for petabytes of data presaged that of the National Security Agency’s by a little less than seven decades. Like the NSA, Holmes took a pointillistic view of the truth. Find as many facts as possible, he held, view them from as many angles as possible, turn them inside out or set them aside until you collect more facts, and then, like pouring iron into a mold, cast your most durable image of reality. “It’s an old maxim of mine that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Holmes stated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.”

The age of Snowden has made well-known NSA’s demanding data desires. So, too, have we gotten a glimpse of how the agency’s information foundry works, that place where mathematicians massage the metadata of phone records and Web traffic with powerful relational database software to strip away the impossible in pursuit of the “truth.” Whether you believe the collection and analysis of your personal data is trivial or intolerable, the age of Snowden has alerted us all to the coming of the information singularity, where near perfect portraits and detailed biographies of us all can be assembled if enough computer power is thrown at a big enough data set.

Plotting the Snowden plea bargain

Jack Shafer
Dec 16, 2013 21:32 UTC

CBS News gave the National Security Agency an early Christmas present on Sunday—a segment on “60 Minutes.” The title of the segment, “NSA Speaks Out on Snowden, Spying,” telegraphed the network’s generosity. After taking beatings in the press and in Congress, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander reached out to “invite” (which is how CBS News put it) the program to receive the NSA’s version of the Snowden affair. “What they got was a chance to make their case,” said correspondent John Miller.

The segment contained the usual NSA evasions and elisions (see the blog work of Jesselyn Radack for examples), so besides the novelty of network cameras recording images inside the puzzle palace, the only non-trivial moments of the broadcast came when Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force in charge of Snowden damage assessment, gave a positive response to Miller’s question of what he thought of the idea of acceding to Edward Snowden’s request for amnesty.

“What would your thought on making a deal be?” asked Miller. Ledgett responded:

Newtown’s magical thinking

Jack Shafer
Dec 12, 2013 22:17 UTC

Newtown, Conn., city officials want my type to stay out of town this Saturday, which marks the first anniversary of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My type, of course, is the nosey parkers who call themselves journalists, the ones who stick microphones and cameras in the faces of the distraught, who knock on the doors of the bereaved and phone them incessantly for interviews.

But neither does the legislative council of Newtown want America to forget what happened in their town one year ago. This paradox — don’t forget us but don’t bother us, either — poured a load of sand into the media gears, as Paul Farhi writes today in the Washington Post. Heeding the admonition to stay away from Newtown this weekend are CNN, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, NPR, NewsHour, the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post.

I, too, implore reporters to avoid Newtown this Saturday, but for editorial reasons that have nothing to do with sensitivity to the families who lost members in the attack. I deplore anniversary coverage of most if not all events, because in almost all cases anniversaries produce journalism that affixes a new introduction on old clips. Readers may love anniversary stories, but that’s still no excuse for running them unless you’ve got something genuinely new to add. But if you do have something new to add, why wait for the anniversary? Publish it when you confirm it!

What’s worse than sponsored content? The FTC regulating it

Jack Shafer
Dec 6, 2013 17:43 UTC

What’s more dangerous to consumer well-being, sponsored content or the intervention of the Federal Trade Commission? On Wednesday, the agency held a conference, “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content,” to “discuss native advertising,” as the New York Times put it. The event attracted several hundred “advertisers, academics and media executives,” who listened to the agency’s views about native advertising — or sponsored content, infomercial, or advertorial, as some call it — those Web ads that are designed to look like editorial content, not ads.

Many if not most top editorial sites offer sponsored content, including the Washington Post, Huffington PostSlateTechmemeBusiness InsiderForbesBuzzFeed, the Boston Globe’Boston.com, the Atlantic, and others, and the list of advertisers includes such household names as IBM, Jet Blue, Pillsbury, Purina, Columbia Sportswear, Dell, UPS, McDonalds, and BMW. The Times piece acknowledges that it, too, will soon be joining the sponsored content caravan that brought publishers about $1.5 billion last year.

When convening a conference to “discuss” something or other, the FTC (or other regulatory entities) is almost never in pursuit of discussion — any more than a police officer who says he just wants to talk. Such conversational assemblies usually become venues in which the agency can issue a veiled threat, either directly or indirectly, to its targets, instructing them sotto voce that unless they change their ways they’ll suffer the agency’s wrath. The regulatory playbook usually dictates that the agency promise targets that unless they start observing “voluntary” restrictions, the agency will have to request legislative authority to make restrictions mandatory. Nothing can be “voluntary” if somebody is threatening to make it mandatory, but the gambit works nine times out of ten.

If Katie Couric is the answer, what’s the question?

Jack Shafer
Nov 27, 2013 00:08 UTC

Web publishing — never a diffident business — has been calling attention to itself all week long. Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer, whose forte as boss has been the shimmering acquisition (Summly, Tumblr, Xobni, Rockmelt, et al.) and the high-profile media hire (David Pogue, Megan Liberman, Matt Bai), signed Katie Couric as the site’s “global anchor,” and promised additional Yahoo News signings, enabling Couric to “lead a growing team of correspondents.” Business Insider auteur Henry Blodget, whose enthusiasm for himself approaches the onanistic, responded to Michael Wolff’s suggestion that the Insider has peaked and that he should sell with a column saying he wasn’t ready to bail. Further down the food chain, Politico, which recently dumped its broadcast TV stations, purchased Capital New York, and PandoDaily (backed by Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Tony Hsieh, and others) bought NSFWCORP to, as its Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lacy put it, “double down on investigative reporting.”

All this recent activity could be interpreted as the Internet’s usual background noise — prestige hires, quietly dumped in the next business downturn, and the usual activity by sites testing their worth in the marketplace or actually selling out. Or, alongside the global expansion of BuzzFeed, the phenomenal growth of Gawker, and Cheezburger-Circa’s blitzkrieg, do these nuggets serve as new markers of the Web ascendency to a place of media dominance?

As someone with a vested interest in the Web’s success, I’m prepared to interpret the setting of the sun as an indicator that the Internet was causing all the other media forms to go dark. But it’s not just me: The speed with which Google transitioned from a university research project to a media colossus impels the belief that the complete eclipse of traditional media is unstoppable. In about a dozen years, Google has reordered the media cosmos: It will take in 33 percent of all global digital ad revenue — approximately $38.6 billion — this year, six times that of the first runner-up, Facebook, according to eMarketer. It will also collect more than 50 percent of all mobile advertising. Its annual ad revenues now surpass those of the entire newspaper industry (as well as the entire magazine industry), as Business Insider recently informed us. “The growth of internet advertising revenue has outpaced other media every year since 2005,” Marketing Land reported earlier this year, with the Internet vying with domestic broadcast TV for ad revenue primacy.

Grandpa, grandpa, tell me about the JFK assassination again!

Jack Shafer
Nov 21, 2013 22:00 UTC

A common defense of the annual Kennedy assassination deluge — one that peaks in anniversary years ending in 5 or 0 for numerological reasons, I assume — is that the assassination happened so long ago that it’s more historical than it is news. If you’re 54 years old or younger, which accounts for about 80 percent of the population, you’re too young to have any contemporaneous memories of the killing from 50 years ago. The current coverage must seem fairly fresh to the youngest of the younger readers. For slightly older readers, the coverage isn’t designed to make you remember the murder and aftermath, it’s designed to remind you of the previous years the media reminded you of the episode.

Who are the designers? The editors and producers who control news media are mostly boomers older than 55, who like all the generations before them frequently confuse important things that happened when they were young for news. Blame them for swamping us this week with endless re-ups of Frame 313, the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy’s bloody pink dress, and John F. Kennedy Jr.’s salute. This week’s most ridiculous look-back has got to be Bob Costas’s No Day For Games: The Cowboys and JFK,  which ran on the NBC Sports Network and described how the assassination disturbed the Dallas Cowboys.

Children have a good excuse for wanting to be told old stories. They’re not very bright, they often don’t absorb the whole narrative the first time around, they learn by repetition and draw comfort from it — and if the story recounts how Bambi’s mother got whacked, they have every right to hope that in the retelling the dark story will be much brighter.

Newsroom big mouths strike again

Jack Shafer
Nov 18, 2013 22:38 UTC

Bloomberg News suspended its Hong Kong reporter Michael Forsythe last week, according to a New York Times report published today. (The New York Post broke the story on Friday.) His suspension began with a request, apparently from superiors, that he go “to the floor where human resources offices are.” A summons to HR is never a good sign. Indeed, according to the Times Forsythe “did not return to the newsroom,” reinforcing the universal view that an unsolicited invitation to visit HR is as desirable as an unsolicited invitation to a gallows.

The Times doesn’t say why Bloomberg News suspended Forsythe, and neither party is talking about it. The Times arranges the dots in a constellation to spell out its belief that he was likely a confidential source for an earlier piece in the paper. That story detailed how Bloomberg News delayed the publication of stories potentially upsetting to the Chinese government and which if published could hurt sales of the company’s lucrative financial terminals.

Assuming Forsythe was the leaker, you can either regard him as a heroic whistleblower who exposed his employer’s editorial cowardice, or as an ungrateful malcontent and troublemaker who bit the hand that pays him. Suspension, a secular form of limbo, gives an employer like Bloomberg News the opportunity to display its anger at the employee and mollify others without going through the bloody mess of a firing. If Bloomberg News were to summarily dismiss Forsythe for leaking, it would be announcing to its thousands of employees that the punishment for speaking out of school is termination, which just isn’t a practical policy for a news organization: Journalists make a living out of encouraging other people — in industry, in government, in academia, on sports teams, inside organized religion — to speak critically and confidentially about their organization. Firing a journalist for leaking to the press or for complaining defines hypocrisy.

Does anyone still work at the ‘New York Times’?

Jack Shafer
Nov 15, 2013 22:21 UTC

Recent defections of talent from the New York Times — Nate Silver, David Pogue, Jeff Zeleny, Richard Berke, Brian Stelter, Matt Bai, et al. — have unjelled the media firmament, according to Politico media columnist Dylan Byers. In a piece this week, Byers called the departures “a brain drain,” “a sucker punch to staff morale,” and an opportunity for the paper to come “face to face with a harsh reality” that in the new media age, its star journalists can no longer be satisfied by the “‘aura’ of the newspaper of record.” In the same day’s Huffington Post, Michael Calderone had the paper fretting about its “retention rate,” adding the names of Don Van Natta Jr., Lisa Tozzi, Judy Battista, Howard Beck, and Eric Wilson to the list of departees.

The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple neutered Byers’s observation by noting that if anybody is suffering a brain drain, it’s Politico, shifting the discussion from the-Times-ain’t-the-ultimate-destination-it-once-was of Byers to the more durable assertion by Wemple that retaining-good-people-has-never-been-easy-for-any-outlet-and-it-ain’t-getting-easier. My view comports more closely to Wemple’s, but that doesn’t mean Byers is full of it. The Times departures mean something. But what?

The exodus of accomplished Times reporters to television has been going on for so long that the exits of Jeff Zeleny to ABC News earlier this year and Brian Stelter to CNN this week barely deserve our notice. For as long as broadcasters have been flush, they’ve had their pick of New York Times newsroom stars. Among the earliest stars to step under the lights was John F. Kieran, the paper’s first sports columnist, who hosted a syndicated TV show in the late 1940s and early 1950s after success in radio. William H. “Bill” Lawrence worked at the Times for 20 years, as White House correspondent and other roles, before joining ABC News in 1961. In 1972, the paper’s Supreme Court reporter, Fred Graham, moved to CBS News where he worked for 15 years, and in 1979, Jim Wooten joined ABC News from the paper. After Hedrick Smith left the Times in 1988, he created 26 prime-time specials and mini-series for PBS, also working as a special correspondent for its NewsHour program. Charlayne Hunter-Gault spent 10 years at the Times before going to The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1978. Terence Smith made the migration to television in 1985, Bill Geist in 1987, Gwen Ifill in 1994, Buster Olney in 2003, and earlier this year, Susan Saulny joined ABC News from the paper.

Your ‘exclusive’ interview isn’t

Jack Shafer
Nov 13, 2013 22:41 UTC

The journalistic lexicon abounds with terms designed to keep reporters’ and editors’ egos as plump, firm and purple as a ripe eggplant. If a dowdy news account needs dressing up, they rush to wardrobe to wrap it in the “special report” designation. Or if a journalist seeks to embellish his reputation, he refers to himself as a “prize-winning reporter” in his biographical note, suppressing the observation that the reporter without a prize is likely the one who has neglected to enter the contests.

The urge to adorn the mundane with the magnificent becomes most intense when a news organization bills an interview with a subject as an “exclusive.” This is not to say that exclusive interviews do not exist. When a controversial or newsworthy somebody such as Lance Armstrong shuns the press or otherwise refuses to answer questions, a Q&A like the one Oprah Winfrey conducted with him deserves the appellation. Likewise, when a writer like Walter Isaacson develops deep and constant access with a press-hater like Steve Jobs, resulting in 40 interviews over two years, there’s something exclusive about those talks even if Jobs had answered reporters’ questions during that interval. Because Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito has yet to talk at any length to anybody but Fox Sports, you would not begrudge that organization the crowing rights that go along with having gotten an exclusive.

Yet most pieces billed as an exclusive interview are usually no more exclusive than a seat in a public commode. The Financial Times, which knows better, frequently indulges the inner urge to hype its work by describing conversations with such people as Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, and Ratan Tata as “exclusive interviews” when honesty-in-packaging would dictate that they limit their boast to “we were the only publication in the room when this voluble world figure sounded off.” Or take Newsweek’s recent piece about investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, a man who never shuts up, which was unashamedly billed as an “exclusive interview.” Or CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta’s recent chat with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, which the network deemed “exclusive,” or Barbara Walters sitting down “exclusively” with Fox News correspondent Howard Kurtz to talk about her departure from “The View.” Nearly every recent interview with Richard Branson (Inc.JetsetHuman Resources DirectorReutersThought Economics, 103.7 FM’s Morning Ride, et al.) regards routine access to the billionaire as “exclusive.” (Perhaps he stipulates it contractually?)

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