Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Protect the Press

During our discussion of beliefs, we used the Bayesian view of belief formation as the basis of our discussion. The model argues that the beliefs one holds are the result of a four step process:

1) Individuals start with a belief (their priors).
2) New information arrives.
3) The new information is evaluated (e.g., is it true, what might be wrong or misleading about it, etc.)
4) Prior beliefs are updated to reflect the new information (even if the new information is somewhat unreliable, priors should shift a little bit to reflect the greater (un)certainty that the new information suggested).

The media plays an important role in steps 2 and 3. Most of the information we receive on almost every topic is provided to us by the media. Journalists primary job is obtaining and conveying information of interest to their audience. To what extent journalists engage in step 3 and help their audience assess the quality or importance of new information is a source of great debate which I hope to return to in later posts.

Today, though, I want to focus on the important role the press plays in providing citizens with the information required to execute their primary role in our society -- providing government with their consent.

As a refresher for those of you who slept through civics or government class, I point out that in our system of government, within the rules of the constitution, the government acts on our behalf and, in theory, is supposed to do what "We" want it to. The power of government is not supposed to be used to achieve the goals of those we've entrusted to run it; it is supposed to be used to achieve to goals of "We, the people."

The role sourced to the media in this process is to provide us (or at least those of us who are interested) with the information necessary to decide what the government should be doing on our behalf -- what are the problems that need addressing; what are the ideas/policies that might be implemented to address these problems; what are the tradeoffs associated with these policies (although the media doesn't do a very good job with this aspect). We also rely on the media to inform us when the government (and/or various individuals within it) is engaging in behaviors that We might find objectionable.

In order to ensure that this process functions, the very first amendment to our Constitution granted all those who have information to share (particularly the press) the right to provide that information. Further, over the years, we have also decided, in order to obtain important information that otherwise might not be available, that members of the press should be allowed to withhold the identities of those who provide them with information in most cases.

We put this stuff first when writing the Bill of Rights because we cannot do our job as citizens -- provide our consent to be governed and decide who should be doing the governing -- unless we have the relevant information.

The current administration has decided that we don't need to know what is being done on our behalf. They believe that all we care about is that terrorists don't attack us, that we care only about the ends (no terrorist attacks) but not the means (torture, secret prisons, lack of due process, unprecedented domestic surveillance, ...).

Further, they seem to believe that the issue is not open for discussion. They vilify and are seeking to prosecute those who have leaked, reported on, or question their methods. Yesterday, the FBI confirmed that it has obtained reporters phone records without the reporters knowledge and without judicial consent. As a senior official stated, "It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration." Georgia10 describes how the process used to work:

Judge Sweet ruled that indeed the phone records in that case were "protected by the qualified reporters' privilege for confidential sources, which exists pursuant to the First Amendment and federal common law." The government in that case was unable to overcome that privilege, so it could not have access to the phone records. You can read the Washington Post article about the decision here.

Now, of course, journalists were compelled to disclose their sources in the Plame investigation, where the court ruled that the government's interest outweighed whatever interest Miller and Cooper had in protecting their sources. However, as Judge Sweet pointed out, when it comes to phone records, all of a journalist's confidential sources, even those wholly unrelated to the investigation, can be exposed. Not to mention that the privacy of the individual reporter is implicated.

In any event, the fact remains that the protection of a reporter's phone records has been and should be within the purview of the judicial branch, where the government can set forth evidence as to why it requires access and reporters can counter with the implications of granting that access.

I strongly agree with that last paragraph. If the government wants this kind of information they need to convince a judge that it is necessary. As an economist, I understand incentives. When it is cheap and easy to do something (obtain reporters phone records), people will do it (and will likely abuse it). When it is costly, people will only do it when it is important. This process makes sense to me.

Ultimately, the marginal benefit from the infinitesimal reduction in the likelihood of terrorist attack that are associated with these leaks (and with these policies more generally) does not outweigh the loss of the higher costs of obtaining (and thus the reduced supply of) the information citizens require to execute their duties. (Or more simply, Benefits= 0, Costs>0 => Bad Idea.)

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