With the recent resignation of an anchor and a reporter from Russia Today, there’s been a lot of talk about Russian government censorship of media. But Zaid Jilani, a former national security reporter for ThinkProgress, the blog of the ostensibly liberal Center for American Progress, notes that the Obama White House applied similar pressure there to tow their party line.
But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post to explain how working in Washington taught me we’re all a little bit like the good folks who work at RT America — struggling against editorial censors, doing our best to follow our conscience despite sometimes suffocating pressures from our publishers and sponsors.
When I started working at ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in 2009, I did so because it was an awesome platform to do good journalism. I knew that I disagreed with CAP on a number of issues, and that I wouldn’t be allowed to write things too harshly critical of President Obama — which half of senior CAP staff had worked for or wanted to work for — or the Democratic Party, or CAP’s corporate sponsors in the “Business Alliance.”
One of the controversial topics that was very constrained in our writing at ThinkProgress in 2009 was Afghanistan. CAP had decided not to protest Obama’s surge, so most our writing on the topic was simply neutral — we weren’t supposed to take a strong stand. Given that I had just moved up from Georgia, and the American South has a much higher proportion of its population in the Armed Forces, I felt particularly strong that we should oppose the continuation of the war. The people who ran CAP didn’t really agree.
Flash forward a couple years, and the Democratic Party’s lawmakers in Congress were in open revolt over the Afghanistan policy. Our writing at ThinkProgress had opened up a lot on the issue, and I was writing really critical stuff. I worked with our art and design team at CAP to put together a chart showing that Obama’s supposed “withdrawal” plan from Afghanistan would leave more troops in the country than when he began his presidency.
The post was one of the most successful things I had ever written to that point. It was featured by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and the Congressional Progressive Caucus used it in their briefings to criticize Obama’s plan. I felt great — like I was actually doing the right thing about Afghanistan for once at an institution that had remained quiet or supportive of Obama’s policy there, which in my view was accomplishing little but more bloodshed.
But then phone calls from the White House started pouring in, berating my bosses for being critical of Obama on this policy. Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes — speaking of a staffer who follows policy set by others for his career path — even made a post on the White House blog more or less attacking my chart by fudging the numbers and including both the Iraq and Afghan troop levels in a single chart to make it seem as if the surge never happened (the marvels of things you can do in Excel!).
Soon afterwards all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama. It confused me a lot because on the one hand, CAP was advertising to donors that it opposed the Afghan war — in our “Progressive Party,” the annual fundraising party we do with both Big Name Progressive Donors and corporate lobbyists (in the same room!) we even advertised that we wanted to end the war in Afghanistan.
But what that meeting with CAP senior staff showed me was that they viewed being closer to Obama and aligning with his policy as more important than demonstrating progressive principle, if that meant breaking with Obama. Essentially, they were doing the same thing to us RT America is telling its American producers to do now — align with your boss, who is the president of the country.
I left CAP not too long after that, partly for reasons of other censorship dealing with both corporate sponsors and that institution’s fealty to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I wanted to work at a more independent outlet, but every place I’ve worked for since has had its own editorial constraints and conflicts of interest.
Which brings me to why we’re all a little like RT America. The people who work at ThinkProgress today continue to do awesome, independent reporting. But they have a lot of constraints on them, and I’m sure they wish they didn’t. But it’s an unfortunate reality in many of the journalistic environments we exist today. We can’t criticize certain people, or dig into certain stories, or follow our noses on the trail of corruption if it means upsetting our publishers, sponsors, and donors.
Having worked as a journalist and editor, this certainly doesn’t surprise me. At the American Independent News Network, I never felt any pressure over the issue of supporting a particular party or particular politicians. We were an unabashedly progressive news site, but we took on Democrats as well as Republicans. But we were a non-profit, so we had to raise funds and sometimes that meant focusing on particular issues more than others because that would make it more likely that we would get funding from this or that foundation.
In the major media, or non-profit media that is closely allied with political figures and powerful organizations and think tanks, there is far more pressure and many more constraints. Everyone wants access and that can quickly be cut off by a White House that is unhappy with your reporting.