There are two significant points to make from these events. First, it is remarkable how media reactions to civil liberties assaults are shaped almost entirely by who the victims are. For years, the Obama administration has been engaged in pervasive spying on American Muslim communities and dissident groups. It demanded a reform-free renewal of the Patriot Act and the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, both of which codify immense powers of warrantless eavesdropping, including ones that can be used against journalists. It has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined, threatened to criminalize WikiLeaks, and abused Bradley Manning to the point that a formal UN investigation denounced his treatment as “cruel and inhuman”.
But, with a few noble exceptions, most major media outlets said little about any of this, except in those cases when they supported it. It took a direct and blatant attack on them for them to really get worked up, denounce these assaults, and acknowledge this administration’s true character. That is redolent of how the general public reacted with rage over privacy invasions only when new TSA airport searches targeted not just Muslims but themselves: what they perceive as “regular Americans”. Or how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman – once the most vocal defender of Bush’s vast warrantless eavesdropping programs – suddenly began sounding like a shrill and outraged privacy advocate once it was revealed that her own conversations with Aipac representatives were recorded by the government.
Leave to the side how morally grotesque it is to oppose rights assaults only when they affect you. The pragmatic point is that it is vital to oppose such assaults in the first instance no matter who is targeted because such assaults, when unopposed, become institutionalized. Once that happens, they are impossible to stop when – as inevitably occurs – they expand beyond the group originally targeted. We should have been seeing this type of media outrage over the last four years as the Obama administration targeted non-media groups with these kinds of abuses (to say nothing of the conduct of the Bush administration before that). It shouldn’t take an attack on media outlets for them to start caring this much.