Saturday, July 01, 2006

Media GroupThink

The Times published an editorial Tuesday in which the editorial board showed solidarity with it's namesake and their revealing of the secret SWIFT program. They echo much of the Big Media response to the Bush Administration and right-leaning citizenry's criticism of the NY Times' piece.

To summarize, Government can't and shouldn't be wholly trusted and only the press has the power to check Government's seemingly inexorable drift toward illegal and abusive behavior. I respectfully disagree.

Sadly, the piece has not been made available online beyond the date of publication, 6/27/06. I think exploring the board's logic important but no exploration is possible without the availability of the piece.

Today though the architects of the LA and NY Times pieces--Keller and Baquet--try to explain their logic for publishing the SWIFT story:

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' 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.

How do we, as editors, reconcile the obligation to inform with the instinct to protect?

How indeed? They do go on to enlighten us on how they report, consider and decide. All the while sidestepping central issues. Unspoken but never the less a present sub-text is the ideal that Government is simply not to be trusted--not to be trusted to do things to truly protect you, and when they do on rare occasion try to get it right, they can't be trusted to do it right.

Ann Althouse comments about it: The two editors -- Dean Baquet and Bill Keller -- rely heavily on the idea that government officials shouldn't have the final say over what gets out and what remains secret. Citizens need to be able to evaluate these officials, who can't be trusted controlling the flow of information. As Baquet and Keller put it: "They want us to protect their secrets, and they want us to trumpet their successes." Government officials are biased toward suppressing things that make them look bad, and the press needs to bring out the full story, so that citizens can exercise the independent judgment that is crucial to democracy.

But the recently revealed secrets -- about the surveillance of telephone call patterns and financial transactions -- were not cases of government suppressing failures. These ongoing programs were successful, and revealing the secrets impaired the operation of very significant efforts in the war on terrorism.

Baquet and Keller's arguments are--still--absurd...the two editors totally bypasses the contents of their own reporting--no expressly criticized illegalities; checks in place and multiple examples of it's effectiveness--as well as ignoring the responsibilities that come with their job as "government watchdogs."

Our editorial this week in support of the decision to publish likewise relied on the "Government can't be trusted," logic while ignoring questions of responsibility or any of the excellent points raised by Heather MacDonald in her piece at The Weekly Standard.

Just because the potential for abuse exists, as MacDonald points out, doesn't mean that it is actually occurring. Risen and Lichtblau made it clear that there was no abuse actively occurring in the SWIFT program yet they were convinced it needed to be exposed. There was no good reason for it.

Keller cited the public interest, yet he nor Risen and Lichtblau nor anyone else in the week since has made anything resembling a strong case as to what that compelling public interest actually was.

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