© Josh Sager – December 2013
On December 16th, the news show 60 Minutes did a public relations segment for the National Security Agency that they are now suffering extreme criticism for. This segment was hosted by intelligence and public relations expert John Miller and was called “NSA Speaks Out on Snowden, Spying.”
Here is a link to the complete transcript of the segment: http://cryptome.org/2013/12/nsa-60mins/nsa-60mins.htm
Criticisms of this 60 Minutes segment are myriad and cover a very wide range. Not only did the NSA ask 60 Minutes to make this segment for them, but the person chosen to do the interviews is an ex-FBI public relations officer, and the information made available to the interviewers is obviously extremely cherry-picked to show a pro-NSA narrative.
Currently, television reporters are suffering a serious lack of credibility—according to a recent Gallup poll, only 21% of the American public trusts TV journalists (as opposed to 20% who trust lawyers).
In my opinion, the execution of the 60 Minutes segment on the NSA illustrates every major reason why the mass media is failing and reporters are losing credibility with the audience.
In the sections below, I will break down this argument and give quotes from the interviews with the NSA to illustrate my points:
Revolving Door Reporters
All too often, the media is home to a large revolving door, where experts shuffle between media “analyst” positions, government jobs, and private sector positions. This revolving door creates a conflict of interest, where media specialists on a topic have a vested interest in promoting the narrative of a group that they are reporting on.
For example: A “military analyst” could go on a cable news show to discuss how we need to sustain certain military programs or even initiate hostilities with a new nation, but fail to disclose the fact that they are planning on working for a private sector entity that benefits from such a policy.
To be fair to 60 Minutes correspondent John Miller, he did open his segment with a disclosure of his history in intelligence circles—while incomplete, Miller’s disclosure is better than many other such analysts have done in the past. He said the following:
John Miller: “Full disclosure, I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates.”
Miller has held a variety of public relations and intelligence posts in the government and media positions throughout his career. From the beginning of his media career, Miller has worked at (in chronological order) NCY TV station WNEW, as a spokesperson for the NYPD, as a correspondent at ABC, as a chief of the LAPD’s counterterrorism bureau, as an FBI public affairs director, and finally as a correspondent of for 60 Minutes.
In short, Miller has spent his entire career shuffling between positions in the media—as a supposedly neutral reporter—and public relations positions in various law enforcement agencies. Given his history of acting as a PR flak for law enforcement, one can assume that Miller is heavily biased in favor of law enforcement and is unlikely to directly challenge any potential future employer.
Miller partially discloses his history, but the neglects to mention his future—according to reports, Miller will be returning to the NYPD as a spokesperson for Bill Bratton (the ascendant NYPD commissioner).
Reporting Without Fact Checking
The American media has neglected its responsibility to fact-check politicians and powerful business entities, thus letting them use blatant lies to combat factual arguments. In many cases, the media neglects to hold both sides of an argument to the facts because they fear being seen as biased—they would rather let both sides speak lies than alienate the establishment by holding them to reality.
It is certainly true that the media will call out some lies by the powerful, but these instances are scattered and far too infrequent. For example, few reporters in the mass media have pointed out that 99.7% of scientists believe in global warming when they have a denier on television to debate the issue—they simply let people assume that both sides are equally credible, despite the evidence to the contrary.
This problem is widespread and not a partisan issue, particularly in regard to intelligence reporting—most outlets are party to this bias to one degree or another and both major political parties are guilty of exploiting a lack of fact-checkers.
In his interview, John Miller consistently failed to fact-check obviously false assertions by General Alexander—here are a few examples of such failures:
John Miller: There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans. Is that true?
Gen. Keith Alexander: “The fact is, we’re not collecting everybody’s email, we’re not collecting everybody’s phone things, we’re not listening to that. Our job is foreign intelligence and we’re very good at that.”
No, that’s not true. NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order. Today, we have less than 60 authorizations on specific persons to do that.
John Miller: The NSA as we sit here right now is listening to a universe of 50 or 60 people that would be considered U.S. persons?
Gen. Keith Alexander: Less than 60 people globally who are considered U.S. persons.
The leaks by Edward Snowden clearly indicate that the US government is collection massive amounts of digital information on American citizens, not limited to metadata. In fact, we have confirmation that NSA analysts have spied on porn habits, emails, and phone conversations of thousands of Americans, and this is just what we know so far.
Currently, the NSA does not have the manpower or technology to spy on everybody, but they do have the ability to spy on anybody. They collect huge amounts of data on a wide number of people, yet argue that they are not technically spying because they promise only to look at the data if they get a warrant.
Americans have known that the NSA is spying on their data for months and the scandal surrounding National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s lies on this very subject to Congress has been extremely public—as an expert in the field, Miller would have known that Alexander was lying, yet he chose to go along with the falsehood without challenge.
Gen. Keith Alexander: “We need to help the American people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.” And to put it simply, we’re doing two things: We’re defending this country from future terrorist attacks and we’re defending our civil liberties and privacy.”
Miller did not question these assertions by General Alexander, despite the fact that the NSA is demonstrably violating the civil rights of millions of Americans. Regardless of what one thinks of the efficacy of mass surveillance, the 4th Amendment protects against such programs and demands that all searches be carried out with strict and specific warrants.
Recently, a federal judge ruled that the NSA has massively violated Americans’ privacy rights as well as that metadata collection is just as severe a violation of privacy as normal data collection; given that this ruling is the highest such ruling in the nation, it is legal fact that the NSA’s metadata operations are civil rights violations, not instances of the NSA “defending our civil liberties and privacy.”
John Miller: Edward Snowden revealed another program called “prism.” Which the NSA says is authorized under the foreign intelligence surveillance act, or FISA. Prism is the program the NSA uses to target the Internet communications of terrorists. It has the capability to capture emails, chats, video and photos. But privacy experts believe the NSA’s dragnet for terrorists on the Internet may also be sweeping up information on a lot of Americans.
Gen. Keith Alexander: No. That’s not true. Under FISA, NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order.
John Miller: A judge in the FISA court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests. Said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs.
Gen. Keith Alexander: There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.
In a remarkably brazen contradiction, Miller prefaces the discussion about US-targeted surveillance with the assertion that “What they are doing is collecting the phone records of more than 300 million Americans,” yet then refuses to confront Alexander in his blatant lie here (less than 1 minute later). The NSA is spying on the communications (metadata) of 300 million Americans by its own admission, yet Alexander would like us to believe that “NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order?”
Either the NSA has 300 million warrants for surveillance (that would be one busy FISA court), backed up with probable cause that the entire population of the USA is implicated in terrorism, or Alexander is lying. Personally, I know where I fall on this question, and it doesn’t speak kindly for Alexander’s honesty.
If Miller cannot catch such an obvious contradiction, even when it happens inside of such a polished segment, he is clearly not even trying to fact-check the NSA talking points.
Sensationalist Fear Mongering
For the most part, the American mass media has become focused on sensationalism and speed of delivery over accuracy and objectivity. This shift in focus is a simply function of the need by outlets to sustain ratings and the desire to scoop other organizations. Sensationalism takes many forms—from spending hours talking about the “knockout game” to debating the dangers of swine flu—but it always serves to draw in hoards of interested people to watch.
Sensationalism and fear not only sell, but they appeal to a superficial narrative that precludes the need to actually dig into important issues. Rather than actually talk about issues in depth with perspective, outlets can simplify their stories by focusing on the fears of the public over the reality of a situation.
Unfortunately, sensationalism and fear are used by people in the media who have an agenda in order to trick viewers. Instead of using logic to make an argument, these people appeal to common fears (ex. terrorism) and emotional responses from ignorant people to win their cases.
During his interview, John Miller let Keith Alexander of the NSA make a picture-perfect fear mongering argument when he let him invoke the specter of 9/11 to justify the NSA’s illegal surveillance:
John Miller: Before 9/11, did we have this [ability to capture metadata from all service providers without specific warrants] capability?
Gen. Keith Alexander: We did not.
John Miller: Is it a factor? Was it a factor?
Gen. Keith Alexander: I believe it was.
John Miller: What Gen. Alexander is talking about is that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in touch with an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen. The NSA did not know their calls were coming from California, as they would today.
Gen. Keith Alexander: I think this was the factor that allowed Mihdhar to safely conduct his plot from California. We have all the other indicators but no way of understanding that he was in California while others were in Florida and other places.
Put simply, no serious journalist would let this assertion stand without challenge, nor would they let somebody try such an incendiary ploy to scaremonger.
To begin with, the NSA has yet to produce any credible evidence that its metadata collection programs have assisted in catching any terrorists operating within the United States. Over the past year, NSA officials have claimed that their work has stopped anything from one to fifty terrorist attacks, but every example that they have given can be traced back to conventional surveillance rather than metadata sweeps. The assertion that the metadata program would have helped in stopping 9/11 is just not supported by the evidence and this claim appears to be an unfounded attempt to support the NSA.
Secondly, the attack on 9/11 was, in large part an avoidable tragedy caused by incompetence within the Bush administration. In August 2001President Bush was given a brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” and his only response was to the threat was to say, and I quote, “You’ve covered your ass now” to the CIA.
9/11 wouldn’t have been stopped by NSA metadata collection, simply because no amount of intelligence is useful when the commander is asleep at the wheel—the Bush administration ignored all evidence of an impending attack and there is nothing to indicate that they would have paid more attention if they had the NSA metadata to peruse.
A Bias in Favor of the Establishment
At its root, the 60 Minutes segment on the NSA was simply a public relations stunt masquerading as journalism. The NSA not only arranged for the segment to be produced, but it ensured that it would be given every opportunity to present its case, unchallenged, in front of a friendly interviewer. Every variable was slanted to favor the power establishment in this piece of “journalism” in a way so obvious that even the public caught on.
Put simply, this piece by 60 Minutes makes them look like flaks along the same order as Pravda (the old Russian propaganda outlet) and was a very bad idea.
While the establishment bias drips off of this production, it is far more subtle and nefarious in most other media presentations—in fact, many reporters exhibit this bias without any malicious intent.
Bias for the establishment can be as overt as the media simply taking the side of the powerful, but it can also be as unconscious as reporters falling into the trap of automatically trusting established sources (ex. White House press secretaries).“Official” sources are often given precedence over those who challenge the government and the media often fails to realize that their official sources tend to have political agendas.
The media’s treatment of people like Snowden, Assange, and Manning as illegitimate for not being “establishment,” while they treat insiders like Alexander as truth-tellers is an abrogation of journalism and the responsibility to report the truth.