The Watergate scandal which brought down Richard Nixon originated in a “third rate burglary”. The burglary itself was of no consequence to Nixon. It was the steps he took to protect the burglars that ultimately proved his undoing. Similarly, the recent news stories about Andrew Sullivan’s citation for pot possession on Cape Cod revolve less around the possession of a small amount of marijuana in a national park then what happened afterward. Jacob Sullum at Reason describes the incident in a matter-of-fact way.
Gawker, citing a report on the blog of Massachusetts Lawyer’s Weekly, notes that blogger/journalist Andrew Sullivan was cited for pot possession in July at the the Cape Cod National Seashore. The U.S. Attorney’s Office later sought to drop the charge, arousing objections from a judge who suspected Sullivan was receiving special treatment. At a hearing last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert B. Collings noted that people caught with pot at the Cape Cod National Seashore are “routinely” prosecuted. When he asked why an exception was being made in this case, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Lang said his office did not want to adversely affect Sullivan’s application for “a certain immigration status” (possibly a visa renewal; Sullivan is a British citizen). Dissastisfied by this explanation, Collings worried in a memorandum (PDF) issued yesterday that “the United States Attorney is not being faithful to a cardinal principle of our legal system, i.e., that all persons stand equal before the law and are to be treated equally in a court of justice once judicial processes are invoked.” He said “it is quite clear that Mr. Sullivan is being treated differently from others who have been charged with the same crime in similar circumstances.” Collings nevertheless granted the prosecution’s request to dismiss the charge against Sullivan, saying he felt constrained to do so by his limited discretion in such decisions.
As Judge Collings noted, the cited offense was pretty trivial in itself. It was the actions of the United States Attorney that entailed a major issue: that of “not being faithful to a cardinal principle of our legal system, i.e., that all persons stand equal before the law and are to be treated equally in a court of justice once judicial processes are invoked.”
It is entirely possible, though a little hard to believe, that the US Attorney’s intervention on Andrew Sullivan’s behalf was unsolicited; that the attorney simply took it upon himself to help Sullivan because the British writer’s great fame and star power aroused his indignation at the citation and compelled him to act. However that may be, it would be natural for some people to think that Mr. Sullivan’s lawyers may have used the telephone and the conversations resulted in the “special treatment” whose purpose ironically would be to help Sullivan qualify for an unspecified US visa. One would think that the efforts of a foreign citizen to bend the local judicial process for his benefit would argue against his willingness to play by the rules of the country he wishes to live in; but in this case it is supposed to have the contrary effect. It smooths the way for Sullivan’s claim to be able to use the term “we” in his writing and conversations about America.
But which America? Who is the “we”, kemo sabe in this instance? If “we” in this context are those “well-connected people who can afford good lawyers (such as politicians’ children) [who] will have more success at avoiding charges, or minimizing penalties, than the average Joe Pothead” then the Sullivan incident highlights two problems. One is what Sullum calls the “collateral penalties associated with pot busts—which can include suspension of driver’s licenses, loss of student aid, disqualification from various professions, and bars on adoption, voting, and jury service” — all to the good — but the other is what I will call the phenomenon of elite exemption — that presumption that some are more equal than others, which once accepted in culture leads slowly but surely to corruption.
Unchecked, the “do you know who I am phenomenon” leads to a permanent double standard; the emergence of a group of people who we dare not, indeed are not qualified to question. The process begins slowly and ends in debasement so thorough that it becomes the new normal. The corruption of the press in a Third World country is an interesting phenomenon to watch. It begins with the acceptance of small favors — transportation, discount accomodation, small courtesies and preferred access — by the press, which politicians and those in power are always so eager to proffer in order to corrupt. Eventually it succeeds. In small doses it is not especially harmful, but soon it becomes a way of life. Things reach the point — and this is done quite openly in places like the Philippines — where newsmen are seated at press conferences with a little envelope placed at their designated places. Each envelope is supposed to contain a sum of money, which presumably varies according to the “newsman’s” worth and it is pocketed without any further comment or public notice, just as if it were a dessert mint or a press handout. You know press corruption has become serious when it stops being noticed; when it becomes like the air that is breathed or the water that is imbibed; transparent, limpid, just part of the scenery.
One of the great glories of the Western press used to be that they actually paid for their transportation. You can’t imagine how surprised some Third World officials are at the the fact that some journalists don’t expect to be given “envelopes” or have their every expense paid for. When you send a donation to Bill Roggio, Michael Yon or to Michael Totten, they need it to pay for their fares, buy their body armor and buy the odd kebab in some stall. They need the readers to keep them independent. There is of course the problem of accepting hospitality, especially in foreign countries. My own personal rule is that it should always be declared, never give rise to a sudden change in your pre-existing positions and never amount to material income. Despite that qualification, even the acceptance of normal hospitality brings in train a kind of personal debt; bearable to some extent, for so long as it doesn’t go too far. And it’s easy to cross the line.
One of former attractions of journalism was to be intimate with the brick thrown into your window, the gun shoved into your face, the sap applied to the back of your head; to know the smell of sawdust on a gym floor, to be familiar with groping for a dime amid the lint in your pocket for that phone call to the city desk; and to know the sour taste of bad coffee served at the cut-rate greasepit. This was the price of admission into a brotherhood, or so we were told. If today that’s changed to the point where a US Attorney will act to keep you from getting busted, then life has gotten easier for journalists, the question is, has it gotten better? In the Andrew Sullivan incident, the citation for pot possession is in itself trivial; it’s a third-rate bust. What is potentially serious is the burden that it places on Sullivan himself. Who can blame others if they believe he now acquired a debt of gratitude towards the US Attorney and his bosses? Who can blame the bosses of the US Attorney for thinking they now have a marker on Sullivan they can call in some day? And worst of all, who can blame those who think that justice is after all, not blind: that some are more equal than others? None of these forebodings are necessarily valid. I don’t know if calls were made or favors were asked. Come to that, I never actually saw what was inside the envelopes I watched handed out at press conference. For all I really know all they contain is empty air. But it’s the doubt that corrodes.