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Monday, July 03, 2006

Time ain't on our side

Time's managing editor Richard Stengel weighs in on the New York Times v. America debate:
When the press runs a story the White House claims is harmful to security, the word disloyalty inevitably creeps into the conversation. The line between dissent and disloyalty, between harmful revelations and vital ones, is murky. Often we never really know. But I would argue that the judicious questioning of the conduct and morality of war is the furthest thing from disloyalty: it is an expression of deep patriotism and the essence of responsible citizenship.

Thanks for scaring off all the crows with that strawman. Is there any American who wouldn't "argue" that judicious questioning of the conduct and morality of war is responsible and patriotic?

Very often in our history, that task has fallen to the press. From the publication of the Pentagon papers and the Watergate probe to TIME's recent revelations about the tragedy at Haditha, our job is to speak truth to power. It is a messy process, and we have not always succeeded.
Do you really want to lump Haditha in with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? Are you sure you're finished emending your story? Don't you think it might be judicious to wait until the investigations into what happened are concluded? And I thought the job of the press was to report the truth, not "speak truth to power." And while we're at it, can we please, please, please place a moratorium on that asinine and hackneyed phrase? It's silly enough when movie stars use it, but it's just pathetic coming from an actual journalist.

The framers guarded the freedom of the press in the First Amendment to make sure the press had the freedom to question the government. Jefferson and Madison believed that democracy could easily descend into tyranny and a vigorous press was necessary to prevent our leaders from getting too full of themselves.

Now I'm having flashbacks to junior high school social studies. Again, who, exactly, is arguing against the notion of a free press? But I think the part about preventing our leaders from "getting too full of themselves" is more revealing than Stengel intended. See, it's not just because of ideological differences that the press doesn't like Bush: they don't like him because they think he and his administration are arrogant, and because he's not as deferential to them as they would prefer. I believe it is this, as much as anything, that has led the press to their "we'll show them" attitude - which is wholly different from protecting the electorate from tyranny - and which in turn gives us Bill Keller deciding he's going to override national security concerns and publish just about anything he damn well feels like. (Can't you just picture Keller chortling"That'll show them!" as he put the Swift story to bed?)

There's not an editor in America who didn't wonder what he or she would have done in the case of the National Security Agency spying story and the recent Treasury revelations. It's impossible to say unless you had all the information before you and could hear the case the government made against publishing. But I believe the moral calculus of whether or not to publish is a basic one: Does the potential harm to public security outweigh the likely benefit to the public interest? If it does, hold fire. Attempting to answer that question isn't easy, but that's our responsibility not only as journalists but also as citizens.

So, using Stengel's moral calculus, what exactly is the benefit to the public interest in publishing a story about a classified operation that was conducted with Congress' knowledge, that used lawful subpoenae to gather information, that took great pains to avoid trampling on the privacy of American citizens, and that apparently was a successful tool in the Global War on Terror?

This sometimes bitter crossfire between the government and the press is not a bad thing. In fact, such a rough-and-tumble debate is at the heart of American democracy, a 218-year-old seesaw over competing values that will and should continue for as long as we are a nation.

The debate is not a bad thing, and, for the third time, who is arguing that it is? The bad thing is publishing information that helps the bad guys and does nothing good for the good guys. (Note to whomever isn't clear on this point: We're the good guys.)

Why is this so hard for so many in the press to comprehend?

Anonymous fmragtops said...

Okay, I've added "speaking truth to power" to the list of phrases that make me tune out. It has joined the likes of "military industrial complex" and "zionist conspiracy."

Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...

You forgot "9/11 cover-up."

Although I suppose that's implied in your two phrases..

Anonymous fmragtops said...

Yeah, I imagine that's what comes next, but for the life of me I can't listen past those phrases.


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