Jeremy Scahill is an investigative journalist, author and founding editor of the online news site TheIntercept.com. He spoke at recent anti-inauguration events in Washington DC, where socialist.ca journalist Kevin Taghabon spoke with him.
Q: What do you think the role of reporters is going to be in this age where Trump is clearly vilifying the independent press more than anything
A: Well, first of all, it depends on what you mean by independent press. The general media culture in this country around questioning presidents is spineless and soft and most of the reporters who are sitting there in the White House press pool don't ever ask real questions. What we've seen because Trump is so overtly hostile to anyone who even sort of “mainstream neutral” so-called media, Trump just views them as the enemy. My hope is that it will radicalize the CNNs and Washington Posts and New York Times of the world to actually see what it's been like for those of us that have been asking tough questions the whole time. But the one-two combination of the war on whistleblowers which I think Trump will continue and then the limiting of basic access of the media, and then the use of Twitter to encourage hostility toward anyone that is not ideological right-wing propaganda is a really ominous sign of things to come.
Q: Considering the surveillance state that was started by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush but really perfected under Barack Obama, how do you think reporters can responsibly cover national security issues, especially when it comes to stuff like leaks and protecting their sources.
A: One of the things you have to remember is that Chelsea Manning, the commutation of a large part of her sentence by Obama is a welcome step. The New York Times wouldn't even cover Chelsea Manning's trial for a long, long time. They got shamed into doing it by independent reporters like Alexa O'Brien and others. I think that that was a fatal mistake on the part of the New York Times. When you're reporting on leaked documents and then the source gets targeted and those media organizations that used those leaks to sell papers don't actually defend the source, then they're not doing their job as true journalists. I think that in our society and in the situation that we're in, if journalists are going to welcome leaks, welcome whistleblowers, they have to follow through and stick with them, or else the message it sends is “we'll just abandon you to seven years of large stretches of solitary confinement,” etc. But also I do think there are a decent number of people in the national security apparatus that are not going to like what Trump is doing, and I think it's our job as news organizations to create an environment where they're welcome to come to us and give us information so that we can tell a different side of the story.
Q: So essentially they feel safe contacting somebody in the media.
A: That's the bare minimum. Also, one of the things that I've noticed, there's a reason why Edward Snowden went to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras versus another news organization is because he knew that those were journalists that would actually defend the source and report on it not from a milquetoast position of the fake center, and it's not about “left” or “right”, as though the truth isn't true and power should always have its say equal to what everyone else says. I do think that we are past the point where the objectivity that always is lionized but doesn't actually exist, is worth much of anything.
Q: It seems to me too that there was a sort of culture in the media cultivated where they saw Obama as an arms-length ally.
A: I think that's true of many of the reporters that were in the White House press briefings. But I also think that it was sort of like they viewed him as a sane person. With Trump the lines of questioning are so blatantly obvious in some ways. Look at his interaction with Jim Acosta of CNN the other day where Jim Acosta was just asking him a really basic question and Trump's reaction to it was “fake news! You guys suck!”. And it's not like he was asking him “why did you drone kill a sixteen year old American citizen?” He was asking him about a leaked intelligence briefing from a dubious source in the British intelligence community. To me that's indicative of the times that we're in. Jim Acosta did the right thing, he kept pressing him. But what should have happened there is that every reporter that Trump tried to call on after that should have said “I won't ask you a question until you answer Jim Acosta's question.” That should have been the way things were for a long time. When I first met Amy Goodman of Democracy Now back in the '90s, I remember when she was asking questions to Clinton's press secretary in the White House press briefings about the genocide in East Timor that the US has financed and supported and allowed to happen. It was reporters in the room who turned on her and started telling her to shut up. The famous corporate journalists turned on her. Now though anybody with a phone can essentially be a citizen journalist so I think even those big corporate media organizations are trying to figure out how to handle all of this new media landscape. I think it's a very dangerous moment for journalism writ large.
Q: I agree. It's not like these news organizations were particularly strong before Trump.
A: Right. But I do think that there is, just on a very basic level, away from any sophisticated analysis – the impact of Trump sending a message that “anything we don't like is fake news”, that's clearly resonating with a lot of people, and I don't know what the consequences of that are long-term. You can say almost anything, and if Trump says “that's fake news”, then it's fake news.
Q: There are repercussions from somebody essentially choosing what to believe.
A: Right, it's almost like “oh we feel this is true. We feel that Mexicans are rapists or are stealing our jobs.” You could put up empirical data that says this is absolutely not true, because none of you A) want to do those jobs and B) the crime statistics don't bear out, but you just “feel” it's true. Why do you feel it's true? “Well, I'm angry, I'm angry at the way it is, and I just want to believe that.” I don't even know how we debate that, how we argue with that, because it's literally though I was saying to you “you're a woman and your name is Jane”, and you say “well, not it's not, here's my idea”, and I say “well that's a fake idea.” It literally is that kind of fucking nutty.