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Gathering data on us journos makes me jittery


In April the Department of Homeland Security solicited bids to private contractors to “create a searchable database of information about journalists, social media ‘influencers,’ and media outlets” and be able to track about 250,000 news outlets all over the world.

DHS wrote: “Services shall enable [the DHS’s National Protection and Program’s Directorate] to monitor traditional news sources as well as social media, identify any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event. Services shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers.”  The purpose, it said, was to identify “any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event.”

Hmmmmm.

Sometimes things aren’t quite as they seem. After I consulted with a fellow journalist in the Midwest I have known forever, I realized there is a bit more to this story—or maybe less—than meets the eye. 

When George W.  first proposed setting up the Department of Homeland Security back shortly after 9/11, I shivered at the very name. I thought more apropos would have been “Fatherland Security,” with a hint of a Teutonic gargle (pronounced like Fadderland) conjuring up images of jackbooted men in tight fitting black uniforms and women like that gal from the Jägermeister liquor commercial simpering: “Of course it’s cold, it’s German!” 

I’ve never been comfortable with many things Homeland Security does, from attempting to track the books people check out from the library to monitoring phone calls everyone makes: something the despicable and aptly named troll James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence (or perhaps Director of National Moonshine)  in the previous administration; lied about when he testified about the government’s hoovering of personal data to the Senate Intelligence Committee five years ago—and then dripped with mendacity when he later lied about lying about it.

Clapper lied when he was asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?” and he replied in the negative. 

I don’t trust the government, any government, any administration with that kind of information. No, I don’t think Homeland Security should collect information on journalists, and frankly I’m a bit jittery when spooks from the FBI and CIA even flip open a newspaper (assuming anyone on a national level even does that anymore) and read a columnist’s bio. 

But when much of the national media—including Fox News!— made a good size mountain out of this database, I decided to dig a little deeper. 

My journo friend Nancy described this activity as akin to a clipping service. “I used to work for a news clipping service. Every time a client’s title is listed in a news story, we clipped it for the client,” she wrote.

After the other media piled on top of DHS, its spokesman, with a name so odd it seems almost like he should be living on Gilligan’s Island, Tyler Q. Houlton, Tweeted, “Despite what some reporters may suggest, this is nothing more than the standard practice of monitoring current events in the media. Any suggestion otherwise is fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”

I hope the large contingent of my readers who actually wear tin foil as a fashion accessory and deep state deterrent won’t be offended by that quote. I prefer fedoras myself lined with chewing gum wrapping.

According to the description of the work project the contractor would be given: “24/7 access to a password protected, media influencer database, including journalist, editors, correspondents, social media influencers, bloggers etc.,” for the purpose of identifying “any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event.”

In an Op-Ed in USA Today, Houlton basically said, “All we want to do is read the news.”

Houlton added: “This type of media service, which has been in use by private and public sector public affairs teams for generations, allows DHS to respond better to noted public concerns, participate in informed public policy debates, monitor global security events in real time, and provide journalists follow-up comment on recently reported stories. The solicitation also required a database of reporters who cover our issues — basically a digital Rolodex of reporters — so policy makers can follow their reporting and contact them.”

According to my friend, who has been monitoring the excesses of the NSA, CIA etc., and attempts by Congress to rein them in, wrote me: “I am not surprised ‘journalists’ as you call them, blew this out of proportion.”

She’s a bit more of an “Ever Trumper” than I am. I consider the Orange One as a buffet. Some of the buffet items are tasty and delicious, and some are doggie doo. That’s what forks are for, to be discriminating.

Am I comfortable with Trump’s Homeland Security compiling this database? No. But I do have less reason to worry about Trump than I did about the previous, supposedly “scandal free” Obama administration, which weaponized the IRS to attack conservative non-profits, and in the words of a former president of the ACLU, prosecuted more reporters for publishing leaks than any previous U.S. president. Trump talks about doing that sort of thing, but so far, he has limited himself to talk. Obama actually did it. Doesn’t mean I trust Trump, however.

So let’s keep our powder dry  (Do you suppose the Secret Service could construe that as a potential threat?) and our eyes scanning the horizon for future threats to liberty, from whatever corner they may come.

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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