Bob Woodward of the Washington Post worked to expose the most infamous government cover-up in our nation’s history – the ugly Watergate affair that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency and put University alum Gerald Ford in the White House. Since then, Woodward has seen several presidents and remains active on the question of governmental secrecy and the responsibility of the media to inform the people. Yesterday, he was a keynote speaker and panelist at an event in the Michigan League called “Covering the New Secrecy,” which addressed the current state of media and governmental affairs in our country. The event was insightful and worthwhile, lacking only the presence of a significant number of students.
Since Sept. 11, and the subsequent passage of the Patriot Act, President Bush and his supporters in the Republican Congress have repeatedly told Americans that giving up certain liberties is necessary to defeat the threat of worldwide terrorism. Still, the majority of the public was shocked and outraged to hear about unwarranted – and illegal – wiretaps implemented by the National Security Agency, and we reacted similarly to news that the administration has been tracking the bank accounts of some Americans since shortly after Sept. 11.
In this environment of secret governmental maneuverings and the media’s oft-criticized role in exposing – or failing to expose – them, it has become increasingly difficult to openly debate how much the government can choose not to tell us and how far the media should go in doing its duty. Yesterday’s event brought the issue to our campus.
Panelists at the event included Woodward, New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson, Fox News’s Greta Van Susteran, former associate counsel to President Bush Bradford Berenson, National Security Archives Director Thomas Blanton and Law School Prof. Leonard Nieoff. The exchange between these superstar journalists and high-ranking public policy experts fostered a rare dialogue on an issue that has been long absent from the popular discussion. Unfortunately, despite all that, the event was poorly publicized and therefore only attended by a handful of students.
Panelists pointed out the profound importance of the informal checks and balances system between the media and government. The Bush Administration may have erred in its justification for invading Iraq and for the NSA wiretaps, as well as mishandled the Valerie Plame case. But it’s the media’s job to pursue the facts behind these stories and not allow the government to get away with anything, and as Woodward pointed out, the media has also failed in its duty of late.
Since Sept. 11, the Executive Branch has made several significant power grabs. Many of these serve no national security purpose while hindering openness in government. For example, Blanton said that the Bush White House has classified and continues to classify more “security sensitive” documents than any administration since Nixon’s. In the past, some classified documents (since declassified) have been found to be meaningless, and their classification served no purpose. Several panelists were rightly critical of the media’s failure to fully expose the governmental missteps like this unnecessary classification.
While it is commendable on the University’s part to bring big names to campus for a worthwhile event, its management could be improved. Televised to a national audience via C-SPAN, the panel discussion was interrupted by malfunctioning spotlights and falling banners. Worse, however, was the tepid student turnout, a result of the event’s poor publicity and timing that would be inconvenient for many students. It’s encouraging that many professors and alums turned out for the event, but it’s a shame that more students could not come listen to the all-star panel.