Saturday, July 01, 2006

A threat to a free press is a threat to our democracy

During the past few weeks we have heard debates over amendments to the U.S. Constitution to ban same sex marriages and desecration of the American flag. It seemed like only a matter of time before we would hear a debate to ban the metric system when a number of newspapers printed a story that the Bush administration was tracking international banking transactions for suspicious activity related to potential terrorism.

The Vice President, in response, said this will only enable terrorists to defeat us and the President said the story makes it harder to win the war on terror. Others have talked of treason by the members of the press. Of course, there was no mention of leaks favorable to the administration such as exposure of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative, or the fact that the administration has been bragging for years about doing exactly what the press reported last week regarding international financial transactions.

Dean Baquet, editor, The Los Angeles Times, and Bill Keller, executive editor, The New York Times, published an op-ed piece in their respective newspapers today in response to their critics explaining the decisions to inform the public of the administration’s activities. Much of what they provide is common sense civics lessons about the role of a free press in a democracy. They write,

… the virulent hatred espoused by terrorists, judging by their
literature, is directed not just against our people and our buildings. It is
also aimed at our values, at our freedoms and at our faith in the
self-government of an informed electorate. If the freedom of the press makes
some Americans uneasy, it is anathema to the ideologists of terror.

Thirty-five years ago yesterday, in the Supreme Court ruling that
stopped the government from suppressing the secret Vietnam War history called
the Pentagon Papers, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "The government's power to censor
the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure
the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the
government and inform the people."

As that sliver of judicial history reminds us, the conflict between
the government's passion for secrecy and the press's drive to reveal is not of
recent origin. This did not begin with the Bush administration, although the
polarization of the electorate and the daunting challenge of terrorism have made
the tension between press and government as clamorous as at any time since
Justice Black wrote.

Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers
information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are
fighting on their behalf, and at what price.
In recent years our papers have
brought you a great deal of information the White House never intended for you
to know — classified secrets about the questionable intelligence that led the
country to war in Iraq, about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan,
about the transfer of suspects to countries that are not squeamish about using
torture, about eavesdropping without warrants.

As Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, asked
recently in the pages of that newspaper: "You may have been shocked by these
revelations, or not at all disturbed by them, but would you have preferred not
to know them at all? If a war is being waged in America's name, shouldn't
Americans understand how it is being waged?"

Government officials, understandably, want it both ways. They want
us to protect their secrets, and they want us to trumpet their successes. A few
days ago, Treasury Secretary John Snow said he was scandalized by our decision
to report on the bank-monitoring program. But in September 2003 the same
Secretary Snow invited a group of reporters from our papers, The Wall Street
Journal and others to travel with him and his aides on a military aircraft for a
six-day tour to show off the department's efforts to track terrorist financing.
The secretary's team discussed many sensitive details of their monitoring
efforts, hoping they would appear in print and demonstrate the administration's
relentlessness against the terrorist threat.

Paul Waldman, in Media Matters, explains that what is at issue here is not national security since this administration has been laying out in some detail since September 11th that its efforts to monitor and disrupt financing of potential terrorist groups. So what’s all the fuss about? It’s the creation of a new wedge issue but this time one far more serious than any we have seen before. Waldman puts it this way:

This week, the conservatives declared war.

Not on The New York Times. Not even on the media in general. No,
this week the entire conservative movement -- from the White House to
Republicans in Congress to Fox News to right-wing talk radio to conservative
magazines -- declared war on the very idea of an independent press.

They declared war on the idea that journalists have not just the
right but the obligation to hold those in power accountable for their actions.
They declared war on the idea that journalists, not the government and not a
political party, get to decide what appears in the press. They declared war on
the idea that the public has a right to know what the government is doing in our

This is a profound threat to our democracy, and we underestimate it at
our peril.

You can read Media Matters piece here.

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