Journalist Jeremy Scahill is one of the three founding editors of The Intercept, was a war correspondent for 20 years and author of the international best-selling books “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield” and “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.”
Scahill’s extensive work in reporting work has twice earned him the prestigious George Polk Award. Recently, he delivered the Kops Freedom of the Press lecture at Cornell University where he talked about “Telling the Truth.” Scahill sat down with the Ithaca Times and spoke about recent trends in both independent and mainstream press and how the press is being targeted in America. (Some answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Ithaca Times: Talk about how the Freedom of Information Law Requests (FOIL) have been restricted since right after 9/11 to limit journalists from informing the public about what the different administrations have been carrying out.
Jeremy Scahill:Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers talk about how there is rampant over-classification that takes place in the intelligence community, and when you have that at the highest levels of the state and the federal government it trickles then down to state and local–-well they say if the federal government can do blanket and deny these requests or thumb its nose at appeal lawsuits etcetera-–then the tone is set from the top on major issues. The Bush-Cheney administration was notorious for being anti-freedom of the press, anti-freedom of information. The Obama administration purported to change some of that, and in some departments they did facilitate an easier process of getting things declassified. But on national security related matters, the Obama administration was as bad or worse than the Bush administration many times. With Trump, I think it has now taken on an overt political nature, where you actually have the White House ordering institutions not to share information with the press.
This is something very unusual in American history to have such an overt assault on the institution of journalism from the most powerful podium in our country. I know so many journalists who are in FOIL hell right now—their appeals are just being ignored.
We are the only profession, non-government profession, specifically mentioned in the Constitution—the freedom of the press. And it’s mentioned to say it is protected. There is a brilliance in that because there is an additional layer of check on the government.
They do it because they are trying to present information to people that allows them to make their own informed opinion about what policies to support or oppose. Or there are those who are in positions, being funded by taxpayers or in positions that are the result of an election, are they doing what they are supposed to be doing in those jobs? That’s the whole purpose of freedom of information, is allowing access to the public. It’s not just journalists who file Freedom of Information requests, it’s also researchers and academics and others.
But across the board now there is this target site on the head of journalism, it’s not just journalists anymore, it’s journalism in general. And you can’t just blame Trump for this—it’s bipartisan. I think Trump is very adept at using the hypocrisy or missteps of his predecessors while ignoring entirely his immediate contradictions. But I think it’s a mistake to pile all of the questions, the most dire questions of our society, onto the Trump ship and sink it when he leaves, and to say all of our problems are solved. In a way I think that is what happened when Obama took over after eight years of Bush and Cheney. And I think a lot of liberals in this country felt like finally now we can get back to normal America. And the damage was done, and Obama, rather than healing it, reopened a bunch of those wounds and legitimized them and used his base of support to sell the idea. For instance, that drone warfare was this suave new way of doing low cost, low risk warfare. And that was Cheney’s big dream. Cheney was really pushing to have robotic drones fly over Afghanistan.
And I think it’s essentially that all of us not get too carried away with the insanity of the Trump moment when we are talking about the history of this country.
IT: What do you think people in this country can do to protect their right to know and also protect the press as they work to inform the public about the policies of their government?
JS: I am not sure I have only one answer for that. I will say that we live in a moment when it comes to issues of the freedom of the press of incredible contradiction, and if you look at the role of social media in our lives it is almost as if anyone can be a journalist in terms of having a platform where you can put something that is purporting to be about an event that took place or lots of opinion journalism. But I mean on the ground stuff, people putting stuff on Twitter. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not true. It can spread very, very fast. It can be an incredible tool for democracy and freedom of expression. It can also be a lethal, deadly tool for the spread of misinformation or the targeting of people.
I think all of us should pressure and encourage our news organizations to hit pause on the instinct to mimic what we are seeing on social media.
We are being dumbed down. We are being groomed to only absorb information if it’s being delved to us in 280 characters or an instagram video.
IT: It’s like we are being socially reengineered.
JS: Yes. And I think as someone who co-founded a news organization, I have this debate a lot. I don’t like this ‘let’s pivot to video, let’s pivot to the social media’ thing. If we stop having fact-checkers, if we stop having editors, if we stop taking our time and saying sometimes we are going to be beat because we are being careful—if we lose all of that then we lose journalism. Then we don’t actually have the journalism; then we don’t have the journalism that is protected by the First Amendment. We just have free expression in society. But if we are talking about journalism—like the profession of journalism—I think some of the best agitation that consumers of media can offer up is to say ‘don’t fall into the latest trend, don’t think you have to turn your paper into Instagram.’
I think we need to reject the tendency now for all news now to be distilled into 280 characters, to be very careful about what we cut in our newsrooms in favor of the newest shiny object, and there is a reason these tech companies founders don’t have their kids on their devices or using their platforms—it’s because they know exactly what it does to the human brain.
IT: What are your hopes for the future of media reporting in the United States?
JS: I think taking what is so innovative on some of the new media reporting—the Twitter, the Instagram—like I said in the beginning, these are in some ways a great tool for democratization, particularly when protests are happening or when you have truly informed people hosting the treats.