Stephen M. Walt

Reporters, scholars, and patriots

To what extent should journalists (and perhaps scholars) allow their sense of patriotism to shape what they publish? And more broadly, how should those concerns shape their  interactions with government officials? Debate on this issue has been rekindled recently in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA employee who is now under arrest in Pakistan ...

To what extent should journalists (and perhaps scholars) allow their sense of patriotism to shape what they publish? And more broadly, how should those concerns shape their  interactions with government officials? Debate on this issue has been rekindled recently in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA employee who is now under arrest in Pakistan after an incident where he shot and killed two Pakistani assailants.  

For competing perspectives on this incident, see Jack Goldsmith here and Glenn Greenwald here.  Both writers make useful points and I recommend the whole exchange, but one passage in Goldsmith’s post leapt out at me:

For a book I am writing, I interviewed a dozen or so senior American national security journalists to get a sense of when and why they do or don’t publish national security secrets.  They gave me different answers, but they all agreed that they tried to avoid publishing information that harms U.S. national security with no corresponding public benefit.  Some of them expressly ascribed this attitude to "patriotism" or "jingoism" or to being American citizens or working for American publications.  This sense of attachment to country is what leads the American press to worry about the implications for U.S. national security of publication, to seek the government’s input, to weigh these implications in the balance, and sometimes to self-censor."

Nationalism and patriotism being what they are, I don’t expect reporters and commentators (or academics, for that matter) to be able to completely disassociate their personal attachments from what they think or write. But when they do let those biases in — and especially when they do so explicitly — then the rest of us are entitled to question their judgment on those matters. More generally, here’s what disturbs me about the idea that national security journalists consciously adjust what they say in response to their patriotic feelings.

First, it is a common error to equate "patriotism" or "love of country" with deference to or support for the policies of the government. In fact, the main justification for a free press in a democracy rests on the assumption that it will take a skeptical, even adversarial, attitude towards the government and its policies. Such skepticism is needed given the information advantages that government officials normally possess: they can classify embarrassing materials, leak secrets selectively, and curry favor with sympathetic journalists by offering them unusual levels of "access." The more you dilute the basic confrontational attitude between journalists and officials, the more the vaunted "Fourth Estate" starts to resemble a Xerox machine that just repackages facts, arguments and justifications offered by those in power.

As Greenwald and others have observed repeatedly, this problem is exacerbated by the increasingly intimate relationship between media figures and the people they are supposed to be scrutinizing. On national security matters, it can be compounded further by the practice of "embedding" journalists with combat troops, which is bound to encourage powerful feelings of solidarity in many (though not all) cases, and thereby create its own sources of bias. 

The second problem with the idea that journalists should let their "patriotism" guide their coverage is that it assumes reporters know ex ante what is really "good for the country."  I suspect Judith Miller and the other journalists who parroted the Bush administration’s bogus case for war with Iraq thought they were serving the national interest by doing so.  In reality, however, they were helping pave the road to a national disaster.  When reporters allow a misguided sense of patriotism to interfere with their critical judgments, in short, it is more likely that the "national interest" will be subverted rather than served.

This same principle applies to other purveyors of knowledge — including scholars — and sometimes with tragic results. In a classic International Security article ("Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War"), historian Holger Herwig showed how government officials and historians in the Weimar Republic actively colluded to whitewash Germany’s role in causing World War I. Their goal was to absolve Germany of blame for the war and thus to undermine the Versailles Treaty, and no doubt these Germans believed they were doing their patriotic duty. Alas, their efforts unwittingly reinforced Germany’s unwarranted sense of victimization, smoothed Adolf Hitler’s path to power, and undermined Western resolve in the face of Nazi revisionism.  What they thought was an act of patriotism was actually helping plunge their country–and the rest of Europe–into another terrible war.

Finally, when journalists indulge in "patriotic self-censorship," they by definition end up deceiving their fellow citizens in ways that can be deeply if unintentionally harmful.  If Americans are not fully informed about what their government is doing (i.e., because clandestine activities are concealed by the government or by sympathetic journalists), then citizens have no way of knowing how much a military campaign or other foreign policy initiative is really costing us.  If we don’t know how much the country is doing, we have no way to gauge whether the results are consonant with the level of effort.  Equally important, when we don’t know what our government is up to, we have no way of knowing why other societies are reacting as they are and we become more vulnerable to "blowback" (i.e., hostile backlashes whose true origins have been concealed).

There are undoubtedly some narrow circumstances when a patriotic journalist should decline to publish something they have learned, such as the details of an upcoming military operation or the location and timing of some secret diplomatic meeting.  But in general, we ought to discourage reporters and scholars from allowing national attachments to get in the way of dealing us what they know.  In a free society, both scholars and reporters have a similar responsibility: to probe, to question, to interrogate, and to speak truth to power.  That’s the main justification for tenure at universities, and it’s one of the main reasons freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution.

Government agencies have well-funded communications operations whose job it is to spin a self-serving story; they don’t need the Fourth Estate to make their job any easier.  And the vast majority of the time, I think we’d get better outcomes if media figures paid little or no attention to what government officials wanted, even when major issues of national security were involved.  In the long run that would be good for the country, which is of course what patriotism is really all about.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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