An Old Hand Reflects on More Than Judith Miller

by rthieme on July 14, 2005

reading-the-newspaper11So this morning we are told they could not find a bunk for Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter jailed for keeping her sources confidential, and she had to sleep on the floor of her cell.

Meanwhile Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth Corporation returned to luxurious surroundings after being acquitted on all counts in his trial for fraud.

I keep getting more and more cynical, Jane Wagner said, and I still can’t keep up.

Some of us worry too much about this sort of thing. I needed to talk to a wiser head and get some perspective. It wasn’t just the controversy swirling around the jailing of reporters for not divulging confidential sources, it was lots of current affairs that led to a conversation with a veteran journalist who has handled plenty of hot topics in his time, relied on plenty of confidential sources over the years. But instead of talking about the constitutional issues, the risks reporters take when they promise confidentiality, he spoke of bigger problems with the culture in which he has worked for so many years.

The bigger issue is the difficulty of getting out the truth about anything at all. His investigative work often focuses on exotic defense technologies, controversial appropriations, behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Corporate executives who have reached the limit of their abilities to tolerate outrageous practices sometimes vent their frustration or alleviate guilt by telling him what’s happening. As a professional, of course, he never relies on a single source. But the difficulty of getting confirmation for their revelations often prevents stories from coming to light.

“When I bring things to the editors,” he said, “they want confirmation from inside the beltway. But those are precisely the people you can’t trust, so if you do get confirmation, it doesn’t confirm anything. So you get into this netherland where you have no idea what’s real and what isn’t.”

That reminded me of a claim a source once made that nuclear artillery were in Viet Nam during the war. I asked how something like that could be confirmed, if it were true, in light of what he said.

“Listen, I once had an extremely good source, a Commander, who said yes, they had nuclear artillery in Europe at a time when official policy was that we would not do that sort of thing. They repeatedly denied it, but he commanded a unit and if the enemy started to come over the line and we knew we couldn’t stop the invasion, we would use those weapons as a last ditch effort. It was not as if somebody said, oh crap let’s get some nukes over there—they had to be in place at the time, strictly a last ditch stop-gap measure in case they came at us like waves of Chinese troops did in Korea. Lying is OK now. ‘National Security’ has changed the rules.”

“And increased cynicism,” I said.

“The cost,” he agreed, “is a populace that no longer trusts the government, no matter what it does.”

“What if I tracked down the names of others in his unit at that time?”

He shook his head. “Even getting other names is not necessarily a good approach. That brings in other people who are not party to this at all and it can screw them too. Once you’ve named them it’s very easy to get to them if you’re in charge of keeping it quiet and say, hey, you need to deny it for the national good. Then they come out and deny it and everything you’ve written is suspect. The easiest thing to do nowadays is to kill a reporter’s reputation. Then you put him out of business forever.

“I had a story [about corporate malfeasance] that had solid evidence to go with it,” he recalled, “and I’ll never forget what my chief editor said when I brought it to him. It was absolutely the cold hard truth, I had it on tape and a list of names to back it up. He looked at it very carefully, then looked me in the eye and said, ‘To what end would we use this?’

“I said, Because it’s the right thing to do. It would expose a major corporation that is literally killing it’s own people for the bottom line. And he said, ‘I repeat, to what end would this be?’ I said I thought the shareholders would definitely appreciate it, but he shook his head and said no, all they want to do is make money. We never went with it. We never went with it. It wasn’t because they were a big advertiser or something like that but I think my boss had been down this road so many times, he knew that the payoff was not there, that it was basically martyrdom. He knew that if enough of the right things come out—remember Gary Webb—you get attacked by the Post and the Times and enough government officials or in this case corporate officials who say that is just blatantly untrue. Then they parade any number of people who say, I was at that same meeting and that didn’t happen. Then the newspaper is besmirched and they have no choice but to fire me because I did a bad job. He knew exactly what it was going to be.

“Who has that kind of power over the media? Look at the boards of directors. See how many companies have interlocking boards, the same people sitting on them, people who meet in the same clubs – that is the true elite of this country and they control an incredible number of things. Stuff like this goes on all the time. I am on the edge of one now, I know somebody who stumbled onto something big, but how can he get it published? Some of the people he would report on are on the boards of publishing companies.

“A free press is an illusion. You don’t have to co-opt a reporter any more; you don’t have to pay him or have him sign up. You just control him.

“When I chased down black budget projects, it was very frustrating. I would nail down stuff, I had good sources, management would back me—in one case, more than ten years ago, I discovered something that still has not come out, and I was told, we are putting our credibility on the line so we need to have a conference on this. We went over it and one of our guys said, you’re lying about this whole thing. There’s no way we can prove all this. That’s when I decided, it’s not worth it anymore. Is he co-opted? I don’t know. But now they think you need five independent sources to verify something and there’s no way that will ever happen. So they effectively corralled me on this issue and it was done by creating doubt. It was coming from my colleagues checking with their sources. But it was also made clear to me through what I call ‘taps on the shoulder’ that those other guys – the spooks – knew exactly what I was doing all the time. I did not use encrypted phones, everything was in the clear, and they knew all about it.

“I told a colleague about it and he said, you’re getting to the point where you’re dangerous to certain people. I said I could handle it, but he said –what’s your price? He asked about various members of my family, where they worked, where my kids went to college. Some of those places were sensitive to pressure. That’s your price, my colleague said. It’s not hard to arrange an infraction for one of your kids at any one of those schools and get them kicked out. You wouldn’t want that to happen to your child, would you?

“I shook my head. He was right. That was my price.

“People would call twenty minutes after a telephone call and know what I was talking about. Twenty minutes after a phone call, guys in suits showed up at the door of a woman who was typing tapes for her boss and demanded the tapes, twenty minutes after I was on the telephone talking about them with her. I know I sound paranoid, but … “

The conversation turned to the specifics of a situation we were both following and I mentioned that some of the details we believed were true had shown up in Hollywood thrillers. Over time, that tends to desensitize the population, doesn’t it?

“That’s entertainment,” he half-sang with a smile.

“Didn’t Joseph Goebels, the Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich, say entertainment is the best kind of propaganda?”

That set him off again.

“Listen, I did consulting once for a movie company and the president of the company said, I can tell your story on film and get away with it but you can’t tell the same story in a newspaper or magazine because if I find one fault with it you’ve lost credibility and the story has lost credibility. I’m just entertainment which removes the BS threshold. People are here to be entertained, not to be convinced. So I can feed you and the public anything I want and call it mind candy but I’m more effective at changing someone’s opinion than you are.”

I returned to the previous story, the one the editor had killed. What was the finale?

“The whole thing was so disarming – it was part of what I call my maturation process as a journalist, At some point you realize that you really can not change the world and the best you can do is just keep doing something that gets you paid. It’s not satisfying, but until you’re financially independent, I don’t know what else you can do.”

So it’s not just leaks and confidentiality. Judith Miller may be a subset of how one issue is chilling journalism but the chill on journalism is a subset of a larger societal reality, something so large it’s usually invisible. The chill wind blows from all directions.

“I have a friend who is a thirty year intel person,” he said. “When a conversation got about to where we are now, he said, got a dollar bill? He said, see the big eye on top of the pyramid? That’s the Illuminati. There always has been and always will be the equivalent of the Illuminati. They’re the power elite and you don’t know most of their names. They’re a group unto themselves and they have incredible power and will never be undone. He said, that’s why it’s on our dollar bill – they’re always watching, they always know what’s going on, and they will be running things. Do you really believe that, I asked? He smiled and said, I spent thirty years in the intel business. I was with the White House. Believe me, it’s true. I said, is it government? He said no, it’s well beyond government, government is just a piece of it.

“Things like that come up in conversation and you think it’s BS but then… you walk away and think about it … wonder about it … connect the dots ….”

I said he sounded like a “conspiracy theorist.” He said that when one describes human reality at sufficiently granular and macro levels simultaneously, one generally does.

“The best way to control people is to keep them just barely comfortable,” he said. “With jobs, a house, a car, a small percentage at the bottom in dire straits. You don’t have time to think about things.

“If you want to sleep nights, you just have to let go and know you can’t control it. The step past that is when you start thinking that not enough people care. That’s your problem,” he advised. “You still think more people should care. You took the boy out of the pulpit but you can’t take the pulpit out of the boy.”

He took the check and paid for my coffee.

“Sometimes, you know,” he said with a smile, getting up and stretching, “it’s not exactly a blessing having a mind like yours.”

[incidental details and the context of this conversation were changed to protect the relatively innocent]

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