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The last few weeks in the world of Washington reporting have been stressful and unbelievable.

First, we had the Associated Press revelations. There were phone records seized from many Associated Press journalists. AP CEO Gary Pruitt said the seizure of these records was unconstitutional and, to use a quasi-legal term, “chilling” to the business of reporting.

Jason Kobler, writing in U.S. News & World Report, said reporter “Martha Mendoza spent much of the past year working on a ‘right-to-know’ project with the AP, testing freedom of information laws in more than 100 countries and detailing each government’s response. Mendoza and her colleagues found that more than half of governments measured either ignore information requests from journalists or aren’t forthcoming with requested documents. For the project, she won a ‘Champion of Freedom’ award from the Electronic Privacy Information Center.”

Kobler continued to quote Martha Mendoza when she accepted the award and said, “(The) Department of Justice investigation was a ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’ into the private news gathering practices of more than 20 journalists.”

Then the next shoe dropped, and we found out that Fox New Channel’s James Rosen was followed and his phone records seized. (Although there has been some denial of the fact, it looks as if they also went after his parents’ phone records.) As if following a reporter and naming a reporter in an indictment weren’t bad enough, this week we were treated to the information that a great number of U.S. citizens have had their call records seized, courtesy of the National Security Agency and a court order made possible by the Patriot Act.

As a reporter in Washington, D.C., and with a 20-year previous career in mental health, I have seen what in any other situation would be called the beginning signs of post-traumatic stress. Most of what I have seen in the last week is what is non-clinically but conventionally called the “deer-in-the-headlights” look. When asked how someone feels about what is going on, I just get that stare that most clinicians associate with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. But this is not post trauma yet; it is ongoing trauma, and the reporters are in the middle of the stressors that are causing it. This part of trauma and stress experience has been called psychic numbing.

The main body of research on psychic numbing has been related to Hiroshima and also the Holocaust. It is inaction in the face of overwhelming impending doom. Are reporters’ records signs of impending doom or mass extinction? Of course not, but when the government can exhibit mass control so that reporters lose their ability to their privacy, it feels overwhelming and as if there is a total loss of control. Not that this is bodily extinction, like the atom bomb or the Holocaust, but it’s a lack of control over one’s business and livelihood. This lack of control points to the beginnings of PTSD.

Most likely the government knows that journalists will not act. They are counting on the next news story, the next big event. Journalists who have experienced that classic loss of control over the tools of their business will continue on and not join forces to do much in the way of revolt. Like many with the symptoms of PTSD, we will not act but continue to do what is necessary to survive.

In the face of overwhelming data collection by the government, we will get up in the morning, report and live with the psychic numbing and that quiet inner anxiety that most survivors and witnesses of war do, suffer silently and freeze rather than act.

The government then wins, and the citizens and the press lose, to the detriment of press freedom and democracy.

 

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