New York Times adds to apparatus of a totalitarian state

For those left in the United States who believe a free press is the ultimate bulwark of democracy, Eric Nagourney’s article in the New York Times today describing how the Times has installed surveillance cameras in the Newsroom is a great shock.

At first, I thought the article was a hoax, perpetuated by someone who hacked the site. But then it seemed real. After not finding the article in the list of Op-Ed articles on the Times’ website, I feared the Times might try to suppress the article, which could be embarrassing in some quarters, without removing the cameras. We shall see.


Eric Nagourney, “Cameras Came to the Newsroom. What if They Catch Us Printing Springsteen Tickets?; My bosses put security monitors around the office; An uproar failed to ensue,” New York Times, June 1, 2019.

That management could implement such a shocking measure suggests that the ownership and management of the Times has fallen into the indolent hands of absentee managers, despite the illustrious history of the Sulzberger family and some of the courageous stands it has taken in matters such as the Pentagon Papers case.

Perhaps the scariest part of the story is Nagourney’s description of the lack of outrage on the part of Times’ employees working in the Newsroom.

As a loyal reader of the New York Yimes, I want the newspaper to add a line under the byline for each story that states the article was written and/or edited under the watchful gaze of the company’s surveillance cameras.

Have any of the bright people who put these cameras in considered whether their presence might affect news gathering (telephone conversations), the protection of confidential sources, or the willingness of the reporters and editors to take on controversial subjects and express outspoken views?

The article brings to mind thoughts about how fragile press freedom has become in the United States, with no effective legal restraints barring billionaires from coming in and buying newspapers and television stations. Luckily, “good” billionaires have bought the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, providing some assurance of continuing independence, however fragile. Together with the ownership structure of the New York Times.

For a totalitarian government to come to power in the U.S., about all that would be required would be to neuter the New York Times and the Washington Post, and shut down or control CNN and NBC/MSNBC. This could potentially be done with enough money and enough acquisitions. Another route would be to acquire control of Google and Facebook in order to control the flow of news from a free and independent press.

But these are digressions, pointing to the methods that have successfully brought totalitarian governments to power in other countries.

Still, if the Times has installed the machinery of a surveillance state in its own Newsroom, the chilling effect could be great. One can imagine subpoenas for the corresponding tapes.

There may be a hue and cry over the cameras, but at the end of the day they are likely to remain in place. This is a deeply disturbing development.

Totalitarianism enabled by technology is not such a far-fetched possibility as one might think.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.