Tuesday, July 11, 2006

At the risk of sounding juvenile

Is criticism of the press part of the First Amendment? From yesterday's Times:

Pipe up with criticism of The New York Times' publication of a story on tracking down terrorist financing, as President Bush did, and you find many of the paper's defenders accusing you of attacking press freedom, even though you have done nothing of the kind.

It's true that Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., wants an investigation and prosecution of the Times on charges of treason, and that some bloggers and others say hip, hip, hurrah to the idea, but the administration itself isn't having any. As is the case with most critics and congressional Republicans, the administration has gone no further than to say the Times made an outrageously bad judgment call weakening a program that has saved lives by thwarting terrorist ambitions. The unavoidable conclusion, as voiced in a resolution of the House, is that the Times and other papers that joined in breaking the story put lives at risk.

Read a column by Frank Rich of the Times, though, and you will be told that nothing in the Times story was a surprise to terrorists and that the president's denunciation adds up to an “assault on a free press.” Other liberal commentators echo the sentiment. Even the American Society of Newspaper Editors issued a statement saying the administration and Congress “are threatening America's bedrock values of free speech and free press with their attempts to demonize newspapers for fulfilling their constitutional role in our democratic society.”

Before turning his hand to tripe, Rich should have read the original Times story, which begins with these words: “Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks ... “ As columnist Michelle Malkin has noted, the story referred to “the secret nature of the program no less than eight times.”

All of this might sit easier with me if the Times had not previously made it strikingly clear that its adulation of free speech is largely a partisan, ideological matter. Hard evidence of its political motives can be found in a 2004 editorial, when the Sinclair Broadcasting Group was planning to air a documentary on POWs making clear their pain at a youthful John Kerry's sweeping characterization of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam as war criminals.

The paper said the Federal Communications Commission “cannot ignore Sinclair's poor record when it comes to meeting its obligation to act responsibly and fairly in the public interest, a duty it assumed when it accepted custody of a license to broadcast on the public airwaves. Broadcasting ‘Stolen Honor' within two weeks of the election would clearly violate those commitments.”

In an age of dozens of cable TV outlets, that argument is no different in kind from saying the government should shut down the New York Times for its opinion pieces and an administration-discomforting news story published near the 2004 campaign's end that was at the least questionable in its speculation about the supposed theft of massive amounts of explosives in Iraq.What is different is that no one - not even the overreaching Peter King - is going that far, as much as Times defenders might want you to think so.

As Jay Ambrose, guest columnist makes so very clear, no one is suggesting that NY Times staff members go to prison. No one in a position of any responsibility calls for the paper's closure at the hand of the US government.

Yet far too many who make their living in criticism--often to good effect--have demonstrated an overly thin-skin when the criticism is aimed back at them.

At the risk of sounding juvenile, I do wonder if they can dish it out but can't take it.

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