Are we becoming A Nation of Secrets? That is the title of a new book by Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter at Time magazine and the Washington Post and now a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University. In it, he argues that a wave of secrecy is washing over our country that “threatens to engulf democratic institutions and irrevocably alter the landscape of America.” Dan Seligman took a dim view of this contention in his review of the book in the June issue of COMMENTARY, and I offer my own dim view of it in a review in today’s Wall Street Journal.
As I try to show in the Journal, Gup is engaged in fear-mongering about government secrecy. But even if his book is flawed in this way, Gup does have interesting things to say about secrecy in other spheres of American life, especially the media.
“It is one of the crueler ironies of the post-9/11 era,” Gup writes, “that the press, whose raison d’etre is to hold government accountable and promote transparency, should itself have become a casualty of secrecy, its methods and manners eerily mimicking those its monitors.”
In demonstrating this proposition, Gup explores a number of recent media controversies, including the New York Times’s December 2005 decision to reveal the highly classified National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, thus tipping off al Qaeda to one of our most critical counterterrorism efforts. He goes into considerable depth into the “secret” editorial decision-making leading up to publication. He is particularly hard on the paper for concealing the various conflicts of interest it had with its own reporters, especially James Risen, one of two reporters who broke the NSA story. He also points to many of the credibility problems that arise from the press’s excessive use of anonymous sources.
I found myself disagreeing with almost all of Gup’s broad conclusions, and was especially put off by the overheated rhetoric with which they are presented, but Nation of Secrets does contain valuable observations about the workings of the press, and a good deal of reporting about other facets of secrecy in American life, that make it still worth reading.