Mother Jones will turn 30 this year, and there’s nothing on earth we can do about it. Thirty! I could say it was bound to happen, but it wasn’t, really. The generation whose spirit inspired the magazine, a generation weaned on “Teen Angel” and instructed never to trust anyone over, well, a certain age, was not one that placed a lot of faith in longevity. Generally, we never anticipated that our revolutions might bound over the horizon of an unthinkably distant millennium and morph into institutions. But there you go, and here we are, in danger of getting venerable.
Thankfully for our sense of vitality, though lamentably for the country, events are conspiring to make us feel ever young. At the time Mother Jones emerged, the nation had just rid itself of an expensive, bloody, and futile war predicated on delusion and sold by deceit, and had rid itself, too, of a corrupt Republican administration that had consolidated power by converting the White House into a democracy-demolition chop shop. The mainstream press fought both of those threats, was a hero in both victories, and was rightfully celebrated as a rescuer of the republic.
Congratulations were premature. Fast-forward 30 years: war, delusion, deceit, corruption, a White House disdainful of democracy—all that’s missing for déjà vu is a heroic journalist or two. If it’s alarmist to think that our current situation is the scariest we’ve ever faced, it’s nevertheless true that the assault on our democracy’s fundamentals is thoroughgoing—and includes an assault on the press.
A noted innovation of modern warfare, as evidenced in places like the Balkans and Iraq, is that members of the press, once accorded moderate immunity as civilian observers, are now targeted as combatants. The same is true domestically. The last time around, with Watergate, the press was the messenger that broke up the scheme. This time the schemers, recognizing their error, determined to take out the messenger first. As a result, the current political wars are, before all else, information wars, fought on media turf. The cruder techniques are by now well known because they’ve been so successful: tarring the centrist media as liberal (Kenneth Tomlinson, a Bush apparatchik embedded as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, even counted it a display of lefty bias when right-wingers criticized the president), substituting talk-show rant and ideological television news for old-fashioned debate and reportage, and paying reporters under the table to tout the administration’s policies, while at the same time blasting mainstream reporters for their putative agendas. All that in itself is not so dangerous; it’s dirty pool, but pool.
Beyond that, things get serious. American conservatives, and especially the Bush administration, are out to hobble not just the pesky nuisance of the working press but the very role the press plays in society. By design, the press was given unique privileges and protections because it was meant to act as a de facto fourth branch of government; it was deprived of other powers, like subpoena power, so that it wouldn’t be government, wouldn’t become as powerful as the interests it was assigned to humble. A democracy, our founders thought, depended on a flow of information from top to bottom, so that the common citizen would see the ruler’s deeds. The press was the main designated channel for that flow.
The danger of the current information war is the degree to which the flow has been reversed—the system is being massively reengineered so that all information flows upward, allowing the powerful to know all about the commoner, who can learn less and less about the government. From its first day in office, the Bush administration insisted its business be kept from the people. It restricted response to Freedom of Information Act requests. It held energy-policy summits where oil-industry leaders could participate but whose proceedings were secret, under the alarming justification that the vice president couldn’t be expected to do his job if Americans were allowed to know what he was doing. It took upon itself the right to seal presidential archives so that no one, even historians in the future, could inspect its dealings. It fought against the establishment of commissions that would inform the nation about the Iraq war or the attacks of 9/11, and locked up prisoners without right of habeas corpus in ghost prisons Americans didn’t even know existed.
Simultaneously, the administration used the Patriot Act to vastly expand what the government can know about you. The effect is an undeclared constitutional amendment re-arranging the balance of powers and redefining the press, just as it would redefine the courts, to suit imperial purpose. The result more resembles the integrated circuitry of a totalitarian state than that of the America we envision ourselves to be.
In coming months, the prosecution of I. Lewis Libby and the further investigation into the Valerie Plame case may expose more of the machinery behind the administration’s secrecy, and its use of information against its enemies. (It may also reveal a lot about the press’ collusion in the campaign to sell the Iraq war.) But many other questions await answers. Are judges being nominated to the Supreme Court because they can be relied on to protect the administration from inspection (in any challenges arising out of the Plame case, for instance)? Was the prospect of an Iraq invasion discussed by the Cheney energy task force in 2001, before 9/11?
To grapple with such issues, Americans will need the service of a fully effective Fourth Estate. That institution seemed in robust health in the 1970s, but it is in desperate disarray today. As Mother Jones turns 30, we don’t have the impression that our relevance has faded or that our fighting days are behind us. Instead, we feel that America’s investigative magazine is just getting started. After a 30-year gestation, we feel we’ve just arrived, to the emergency born.