BBROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week public radio stations across the country are collaborating in a project called "Whose Democracy Is It?" Since the whole enterprise of democracy depends on an informed electorate, we decided to spend this hour on the state of play between media and democracy in 2003. Abraham Lincoln once said "Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe." So that's what we're asking today -- are the facts out there, and if not, why not?
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Armstrong is an investigative reporter who has served as liaison between journalists and government groups on the issue of leaks. He sees a serious blockage in the information flow, and he joins me now. Scott, welcome back.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: It's nice to be here.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: So Thomas Jefferson once said "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." I mean, come on, he wasn't serious, was he?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well, he was quite serious, and in fact from the very founding of our country, the relationship between the newspapers and the Congress was symbiotic. The newspapers originally published what the Congress did as their official records, and they published what they thought of it.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: And what were the respective roles of the media and the Congress?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well as time developed, the media became essentially the hammer that would use Congress as an anvil to beat points out and say this is what is going on, and Congress would then examine it. On other occasions, the Congress became the, the hammer, and the media would be an anvil, but there was always a relationship of one being able to strike the other and be able to shape the public understanding of things. Woodrow Wilson in 1885 said that the Congress' primary function is to inform the public, not to legislate -- that informing was much more fundamental than legislating.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: So how are the anvil and the hammer proceeding today? Flash forward to 2003.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well right now we're swinging the media hammer, and it's just flying through the air. It's not hitting anything. The Congress isn't there.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example of how this symbiosis has fallen apart?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well, the example that we're now suffering through at length is Ambassador Wilson, who had been asked by the administration to go to Africa to find out if the Iraqis were trying to purchase yellow cake uranium from Niger. He had come back and reported that they weren't privately, and when the administration ignored it and went to war, he made his trip known publicly. We're now stuck on the notion that somebody in the administration revealed the fact that Wilson is married to a CIA official, and there's now an FBI investigation going on at the request of the CIA for the leak of that information. And yet, we don't have Congress going back and concentrating on the fundamental question which is why the administration went after Wilson in the first place, which is that the premise for the war, the premise for saying that Saddam was a nuclear threat was an incorrect premise. That was known as early as September of 2002. Congress knew it in March of 2003 and in fact asked questions about it, but never bothered to have hearings. They just took a pass on it, and they still are taking a pass on it today. Congress is not setting things up. They're not beginning to have hearings on important issues.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: And so with Congress, then, refusing to run with the clues provided earlier in the year about the uranium story, did the media end up somehow overstepping its role in order to fill the gap?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: What happens is when you don't have a public forum, when you don't have either a congressional committee or you don't have people who have the ability to get information and put it out publicly, when you don't have that anvil, the media is insecure. It feels that it's not able to pin it down. It's looking for other people to take the responsibility, as well it should, but it's not able to go out and get the sources itself, and so it writes it in a very namby-pamby way. It's a fundamental change in the way the media's role has developed in our democracy.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it the political climate, or this particular administration or merely the fact that the Republicans control the presidency and both houses, or a combination of all those things?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Going back to some time in the Reagan administration I would say, there's been a kind of consistent belief that if they just simply hold back facts, depriving the press of the basic information it needs to go begin to do reporting, and the press has to just fight for that information, that the press won't have time left over to actually go probe these things and find out if they're really true, and that's basically proven to be an accurate assumption. They have begun to manipulate by simply raising the cost of doing business. Secrecy compounds this. If information is the currency of democracy, secrecy allows you to print counterfeit currency, and that's what's happened. We have things like this weapons of mass destruction thing that are built on counterfeit currency. And so that's a change, and it's arrived to us kind of mechanically -- the same people through a couple of administrations. The Clinton administration did some of the same things. But they didn't raise the barrier to basic information quite as high as this administration has. For the first time since the founding of the Defense Department, they took the regulations that control the Defense Department and made them unavailable to reporters, the public or anyone else. They'd always been available. You could get them on web sites. And they told you how things were supposed to happen in the military. They took them, and they made them for official use only. We can still get them, if you go to a lot of effort, but they're just not there to refer to, to say is this being done right? Is, you know, what is it that's supposed to happen next?
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: And the desperate scramble after fewer facts means that the facts are not as scrupulously checked and not as reliable?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well these days I think it's become the standard of reporting that if you can find out what the Defense Department or the White House or the State Department say they're doing, that that's called real reporting. In the old days, that wasn't considered reporting at all. That was the, the work of a scribe. That's where you started before you went out and did your reporting. These days, to just get that information becomes an effort. Every administration tries it to some extent, but this Congress has just sat back and let the administration go, and that's got to stop.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, how then, Scott? How does it stop?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: It stops when a committee chairman says I insist that the Secretary come here, and I'm going to ask him these questions publicly, and we're not going to go into executive session, and you have to explain to us why you're not going to give us this information. And gradually that kind of pressure, very much like the British system where you have a questionar, where, where there's a confrontation between the Parliament and the administration, is what finally gets you answers, because they can't stand that kind of scrutiny over time. And if they won't give it, then you start putting on other witnesses who do give it to you, until finally you get a complete picture. It's just hard work, and the media itself has to stand up and say look -- you're making us do your job. We cannot be the only fact finder here. You have to advance the facts. It's only when you have that three-way intersection between the executive branch, the legislature and the media that the public is really, truly informed.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Scott, thanks a lot.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Brooke.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Armstrong is a Washington journalist and founder of the National Security Archive.