If the Snowden leaks proved that government spooks are evil, why do Americans still trust the military more than any other institution?In honour of the silly season, here is a real-life puzzle drawn from opinion polls. Somehow, members of the public remain obstinately un-manipulated by the one-sided reporting on the Snowden leaks about NSA and GCHQ surveillance. Reorganising media to make such an extreme, pointless bias impossible would be an incalculable enrichment of our culture, as we proposed last week.
The other day, we came across the results of a Gallup poll in June: by a staggering margin, Americans still trust their military more than any other public institution, including the people’s own elected representatives in Congress – and the presidency, and Supreme Court. Just look at the percentages of interviewees who answered that they had a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in each of these groups: military (74); Congress (7); the church or organised religion (45); presidency (29); public schools (26); banks (26); medical system (34); criminal justice system (23).
Most government spying is done on behalf of the armed forces, to serve military ends. Indeed, America’s citizens are slowly coming round to a less benign view of the NSA’s arguments about needing to collect vast stores of personal data about them for their own safety. But they also seem, on the whole, to accept the government’s arguments that changes in technology and the differences between fighting terrorists and waging conventional wars have changed what spies must do to spy effectively.
This flatly contradicts the claims of some of the most ardent campaigners on behalf of Edward Snowden – who remains more unfathomable than either wicked or virtuous, for many of us – that he has sparked mass outrage about government surveillance. (Though, by last November, the weaselly word ‘resonate’ was being used, as in, ‘His disclosures about the NSA resonated with Americans from day one.’)
A new specialist in conducting interactive, continuous polls, isidewith.com – commendably non-partisan, if a Forbes report is accurate – suggests that Americans, by a solid 10 per cent margin, oppose granting Snowden immunity from prosecution. But where in The New York Times or The Guardian – two purveyors of news analysis considered disproportionately influential– has this view been reflected, delved into and explained in perceptive commentary by either insiders or outside commentators?
Since there has been no such delving, nor in-depth reporting on the reasons for the public’s continued support of the military, the true mission of the 29 year-old at the heart of l’affaire Snowden continues to be as mysterious as the Turin shroud. Or, so we thought, as we read Michael Wolff, in his GQ profile of the Guardian’s chief, describing the newspaper’s attempt to ride the uproar about the leaker that it largely manufactured to make itself the talk of America and win a vast new transatlantic audience:
Its efforts so far had hardly put it on the map in the US – and suddenly Snowden did. … News outlets want to break big stories but at the same time not be overwhelmed by them – a certain detachment is well advised. It is an artful line. But the Guardian essentially went into the Edward Snowden business – and continues in it. … The effort to pretend that the story is straight up good and evil, … without peculiar nuances and rabbit holes and obvious contradictions, is really quite a trick.
In an effort to pull off that trick, the Snowden brand – with hints of baby Jesus – and the Guardian brand – as something like God the father and protector – become nearly symbiotic. (The Guardian now campaigns fiercely for a Snowden pardon.)
Because the Snowden exposés were so crucial to the paper’s U.S. ambitions — in turn, part of a future plan sequestered behind dust sheets, as we said last week — it stifled virtually all perspectives and discussion critical of him and his band of helpers, including the lawyer-turned-journalist Glenn Greenwald:
The theoretically freewheeling Guardian locked itself down. Staff and contributor Twitter feeds were closely monitored for indications of Snowden or Greenwald deviations, with instant reprimands when any party-line divergence was spotted.
Devotees of the Guardian will find it hard to recognise it in that censorship usually associated with dictatorships, unless they have been loyal readers of this blog – and remember the comments about press reform that its moderators deleted, which post-Gutenberg saved and reproduced here. (Scroll down to the bottom of this earlier entry: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’ 7 November 2011.)
Such drastic warping of the discussion in a democracy of a subject as serious as military tactics and defence must be countered. How? In the spring of last year, we suggested that for systematic and regular audience consultation, media might adopt equivalents of Switzerland’s Publikumsrat – the five-man Public Council of Swissinfo.ch, which is the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999. (See: ‘How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media,’ 3 March 2013.)
The style of government that makes Switzerland the world’s most democratic democracy is replicated in organisations of every size and kind in CH – including its many businesses run as cooperatives, two of which make the list of the world’s top twenty-five in sales.
The Publikumsrat gives Swissinfo’s editors and journalists detailed feedback on their choice of subjects as well as on the way these are tackled. It makes suggestions for new topics. It also defends Swissinfo from its detractors. More than once, in the last ten years, it has led campaigns to protect it from accountants wielding budget-slashing axes – inspiring ‘Save Swissinfo!’ petitions from as far away as New South Wales, in Australia.
We see Publikumsrat equivalents in the Anglosphere as unavoidable and essential. If the Guardian had one, the gap between popular opinion and the paper’s religious fervour, covering Snowdenia, could not be the great black hole it is.
The proof of quite how badly we need one is in the Gallup poll statistic for public confidence in the press. It was a humiliating 22 per cent, only three points higher than for ‘news on the internet’ (19).