Notes from a journalist in the margins
10 February 2014
Many thanks to all of you who sent me suggestions for how better to protect my privacy after what looked suspiciously like a hack of my computer by the Shin Bet. There are some suggestions that I will certainly be incorporating into my working practices, as best I can.
I have received far too many emails to be able to answer each of them, at least not in the short term (although I will do my best over the coming days if my workload eases). I thought in the meantime I would write a quick post as a way to address more generally some of the issues readers have raised, including a few misconceptions I may have encouraged with my original post on the hacking incident.
These thoughts are also worth setting down, in my view, because, increasingly in the wake of the NSA revelations, some misunderstandings about the work of journalists have emerged.
1. As I have pointed out in the past, most journalism in the mainstream is actually variations of what might charitably be called “accesss journalism”. These journalists – led by most of the industry’s household names – rely on maintaining good relations with the political and economic elites so they can keep their access to information. Corporate media are essentially in a cut-throat competition to relay the details of the debates and narrow feuds between these elites. Journalists working for CNN are trying to out-access journalists from Fox or MSNBC. This is the basis for 99% of so-called “exclusives”.
One might also call this “parasitic journalism”. Much of this kind of reporting is near-useless if you want to know what’s really going on – or it is unless you are very skilled at decoding it. The political drama it represents is designed to keep us distracted, entertained and pacified.
But that in turn doesn’t mean that whoever is not practising access journalism is somehow directly challenging the might of the security state. There are plenty of the more marginalised journalists, myself included, who decry access journalism but rarely work with more information than that available in the public realm. Where we often add value is in our ability to challenge the (mis)information disseminated by access journalists. We test the elite’s claims about what happened against the reality – by going to see, for example, the facts on the ground, and by talking to those who witnessed the events or have a special expertise in the subject.
Marginalised journalists, typically, differ from access journalists in that, whereas the latter’s reporting is synonymous with regurgitation, the former’s reporting must maintain a critical, even sceptical, distance from official sources of information.
Marginalised journalists also differ from mainstream reporters – those who are on the ground alongside them – in that we are not as obviously troubled by serious conflicts of interest. Most NYT or BBC correspondents operating in the field need at the same time to keep on good terms with government officials and political leaders and to bear in mind the interests of their own corporations if they are to stay useful and succeed in their careers. So, while they may not regurgitate official information like an access journalist, these reporters invariably equivocate. The most successful correspondents are masters of the “he said, she said”, “on the one hand, on the other hand” school of journalism.
In short, the qualities (beyond technical ones) that a marginalised journalist brings to the job are little more than a degree of open-mindedness and a lack of careerism. Most of my work, whether reporting or commenting, is based on readily available facts, which I try to decontaminate from the cesspool of misinformation provided by officials and access journalists.
2. I and most other marginalised journalists are not at the other end of the spectrum: we are not Julian Assange or Glenn Greenwald, burrowing away into the heart of the security establishment. (To be honest, until Edward Snowden came along, Greenwald was not either. He was mostly basing his analyses on publicly available data. When that changed last year, he had to quickly learn how to encrypt his emails and keep off internet connections.)
The overwhelming majority of marginalised journalists are not working undercover or in the grey areas of the law. What we do is almost entirely above board and within the letter of the law. We rarely have secrets because we neither have access to the power networks that can provide an access journalist with such “secrets” nor are we part of the tiny group of national security journalists, like Greenwald and Assange, who have to dwell in a dangerous netherworld where real secrets can be unearthed.
In fact, secrecy, in my kind of journalism, is usually only necessary during certain types of investigations. It is designed not to conceal wrongdoing on our part; it is usually a short-term tactic for gaining information that should be available but is hard to gather otherwise. It is a way to outwit officials who are not playing by transparent rules.
3. All this does not mean that states do not want to know what marginalised journalists are up to, even those who never get hold of real secrets. If you accumulate a lot of information, develop a good network of contacts, or excel at real analysis – decoding the official information the parasitic journalists provide – and reach a large enough audience, I suppose you are in danger at some point of arousing the interest of the relevant security services.
As the ability of these agencies to spy on all of us grows exponentially, so doubtless too does their temptation to use such technological prowess against journalists, including those in the margins. I can imagine security officials feel a little like sheep dogs, keen to corral the unruly members of the journalistic flock back into the pen. But if we refuse to be intimidated, then a peek into our emails or electronic address books may seem a second best. For those, like the security services, who fetishise knowledge and power, there must be a desperate urge to eliminate our small spheres of alternative knowledge.
4. Whatever my original post on the hacking of my computer implied, I am not trying to run from the Shin Bet. My assessment is that, if they really believe I am concealing vital information from them, they will find a way to get it one way or another. After all, I can’t work offline all the time. In the end, any journalist can be arrested, or their homes physically ransacked rather than just the contents of their computers. My goal is not to end up living on the run, I have neither the temperament nor the bravery to do it. Nor is it to hide in the shadows, becoming either a mirror image of the very people I despise or their victim.
5. It would be wonderful to turn my computer into the virtual equivalent of Fort Knox. If I were a national security correspondent, responsible for protecting vulnerable sources confiding secrets, that might be necessary. But I am not. I live out in the open, trying to contribute to the countering of the forces of darkness with my tiny little sunbeams of transparency and honesty. I do not intend to change that philosophy, or certainly not until those forces of darkness threaten to eclipse the sun entirely – and we are not quite there yet.
In the meantime, marginalised journalists like me – with no institutional backing and very limited resources of time and finance – will have to turn our hand as best we can to navigating the digital world.
To those who have provided some clues as to how to do it, I am grateful indeed.