Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The media and national security

It was the panel I was looking most forward to hearing as part of this week's "Top Secret" academic seminar hosted by The Washington Center.

The panel included NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, ProPublica's Dafna Linzer and Al-Arabiya's Hisham Melhem.

Kelly addressed the question of whether information relayed to a journalist ought to be kept secret. In her words, the "bar has to be very, very high" before she'd agree to withhold from her audience something she knows. She used the recent failed Times Square bombing to illustrate her point. She noted that the New York Police Dept. and the FBI were leaking information "left, right and center" to the media as they pursued Faisal Shahzad.

However, one of her colleagues refused to report one particular piece of news -- that the investigation was taking investigators to Sheldon, Connecticut. Of course, other news organizations did, and it was Kelly's opinion that the more the Shahzad knew that the noose was tightening around him, the faster he attempted to get out of the country.

And if you've followed this story, you know how close he came to doing just that.

Linzer offered the students one of the most intriguing metaphors I've heard about covering national security issues, and it was an unnamed intelligence officer who relayed it to her.

She equated a piece of intelligence to a leaf found on the ground in the forest. Among the questions that need to be asked -- How did it get there? From which tree did it fall? How long ago did it land on the ground?

Her point: making connections between this one piece of information to the larger picture is not easy. And when mistakes are made by the reporter, the inaccuracy of the news report is the first of many problems the journalist will face.

Melhem's comments reflected something I encourage my students to do -- find ideas that are separate from the ones delivered by U.S. media. He noted that television media continue to grow in number and importance in the Middle East, and that the media as a whole run the gamut across the political spectrum.

He also delivered a Middle-East perspective on how the war in Iraq developed. He noted that over decades various dictators crushed civil society (and the U.S. largely looked away) with the effect of the mosque -- spared the rod by these dictators -- becoming the only legitimate organization in the minds of the public. The dictator, Saddam in this case, was then removed and the U.S. pushed for open elections. They were held and the Islamists (Melhem's word) -- those with close ties to the mosques -- won. And these results caused the U.S. to "recoil," Mr. Melhem said.

One other point -- and here again is an example of culture -- to mention. At one point, Mr. Melhem was discussing the general media situation in the Middle East, and he mentioned "Palestine."

You'd never hear a U.S. media member say that.

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