Today the news of Walter Cronkite’s death reached me at the same time I heard about an exchange between Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Chuck Todd of NBC on torture investigations. The juxtaposition of these events, in such close proximity, highlighted for me the existential threat to American Democracy that we now face. Not from al Qaeda, or other terrorists, but from our own fears, an increasingly elitist society, and a mainstream press without morals, a clear sense of its mission in a free society, or the courage of its forebears.

The exchange between Greenwald and Todd was preceded by an appearance of Todd’s on the MSNBC Morning Joe show where Todd, under the guise of his role as a “reporter” contended that torture investigations would be a distraction from the really important things this administration had to get done. Glenn Greenwald followed with a very cogent blog spinning out the full implications of Chuck Todd’s position, including its advocacy of the position of one side of the torture issue, and he then invited Chuck, who graciously accepted, to do a radio podcast with Glenn, the transcript of which is here.

Reading all this, my conclusion is that Chuck has lost his way and that he needs to refresh his memory of Hannah Arendt’s thinking on “the banality of evil.” This judgment may be harsh. But surely Chuck Todd must know, that the continued existence of American Democracy depends on recognizing that there is a limit to his sophisticated relativism, and that every issue in a Democracy cannot be reduced to a struggle between two equally subjective ideological/political/partisan positions. Surely he must know that democracy presupposes certain things, and that when we have a choice between two undesirable courses of action, it matters very much which of the two bad choices has the fundamental consequence of undermining democracy, and which only presents a democratic political system with substantive difficulties that can in principle be overcome, if we work hard enough at it, and are skillful enough.

From the viewpoint of democracy, creating a state of affairs where laws intended for everyone do not, at its whim, apply to the Executive Branch of Government is evil. It is evil because it substitutes a Government of Men for a Government of Laws, and opens the populace to all kinds of criminal abuse by those in power, and ultimately to the very tyranny that the United States of America was created to escape. On the other hand, if a current administration prosecutes members of a previous administration under our laws, and using proper procedures; even if such prosecutions are inconvenient and painful and present difficulties of objectivity, and of creating disunity among citizens, then it is still the case that such prosecutions are not a fundamental contravention of democracy, but present difficulties for it that any democratic system can overcome.

In fact, the truth is that democracies have to be able to overcome such difficulties, because that is the only way they can continue to exist. Sooner or later any democracy will find that there are crimes in high places that people with power will want to keep secret. And it will always be the case that prosecution of these crimes, even though it brings validation and reinforcement of basic principles, will be hurtful to some, and will bring bitterness and disunity. But, once again, the alternative to such prosecutions, the alternative of papering them over, and failing to uphold the law, corrupts democracy at its roots; destroys all its legitimacy, and splits the population into elites immune from prosecution and all the rest of us.

This is something that cannot be allowed if the United States of America, as we have known it, as a functioning democracy, is to continue to exist. Again, the evil that Glenn Greenwald has exposed in Chuck Todd’s views, is the evil, emerging out of his easy and sophisticated relativism, of a choice that strikes at the root of our democracy: equality before the law. And Chuck is saying to us that he is willing to sacrifice equality before the law, and to open the way to future crimes by future presidents, so that President Obama can have an easier time of implementing his political agenda.

That the issue of how sophisticated members of the establishment press like Chuck Todd view torture investigations and lawful prosecutions, namely as “cable catnip,” should emerge at the time of the death of Walter Cronkite is particularly ironic, and a reason both for sorrow, and for anger. Can any of us imagine Walter Cronkite, or his mentor Ed Murrow ever deciding to prioritize an administration’s current agenda over probable executive violations of laws resulting in the murder of perhaps a hundred people, and the suffering of many others? I cannot. To even raise the question is to point up how far we’ve come from the time when our democracy was strong enough to force a president from office before he could be impeached over a mere burglary. Today, it is not even strong enough to develop a healthy sense of outrage among its press guardians at probable executive malfeasance, while simultaneously gorging itself on petty sex scandals, which are deemed eminently newsworthy, while prosecutions for torture and single payer health plans are given little attention, because the Executive has said that they are off the table.

How far from the end of democracy are we? I don’t really know. But when those who purport to be at the top of modern television journalism, evidently find Chuck Todd’s way of thinking reasonable and natural and well within the mainstream of thought, and do not recoil in disgust and outrage from it, I think their super-sophistication about the real world has become very dangerous for American Democracy, and that we need to think deeply and continuously about how we will possibly be able to resist the next Joe McCarthy, or a Richard Nixon, or a new Dick Cheney if he were president; about, in short, how near the end of American Democracy we are.



Joseph M. Firestone, Ph.D. is Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director and co-Instructor of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program, as well as Director of KMCI’s synchronous, real-time Distance Learning Program. He is also CKO of Executive Information Systems, Inc. a Knowledge and Information Management Consultancy.

Joe is author or co-author of more than 150 articles, white papers, and reports, as well as the following book-length publications: Knowledge Management and Risk Management; A Business Fable, UK: Ark Group, 2008, Risk Intelligence Metrics: An Adaptive Metrics Center Industry Report, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2006, “Has Knowledge management been Done,” Special Issue of The Learning Organization: An International Journal, 12, no. 2, April, 2005, Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003; Key Issues in The New Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, and Excerpt # 1 from The Open Enterprise, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2003.

Joe is also developer of the web sites,,, and the blog “All Life is Problem Solving” at, and He has taught Political Science at the Graduate and Undergraduate Levels, and has a BA from Cornell University in Government, and MA and Ph.D. degrees in Comparative Politics and International Relations from Michigan State University.