Topic: Media

The New York Times, Aiding and Abetting
(7/17/2006)

This doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be written.

The firestorm ignited by the New York Times’ revelations of the details of extensive U.S. government efforts to track banking transactions as a tool in the war against terror supposedly represents just one more battle in the old, old war between Freedom of the Press and the legitimate need for government secrecy. It isn’t. It is a stark example of the irresponsibility and arrogance of the press, and vividly demonstrates why the media should not be above the law when it comes to publishing information that has been leaked illegally by individuals.

If the source broke the law by revealing the details of the secret program to the Times, then the Times should be held accountable for compounding the crime by publishing it to the world. A paper’s reporters cannot steal government papers or tap government phones or hack into government data bases to acquire material for stories, and it should not be able to publish otherwise illegally revealed information because it wants to sell papers, scoop the Washington Post, undermine Administration policy, or just doesn’t have the common sense God gave a squirrel. When the United States prosecuted successful wars, tough restrictions on press access to information were both enforced and accepted. If today’s media could be trusted to exercise restraint and judgement, that would be a strong argument in favor of the status quo. But that is obviously not the case. Indeed, media bias implicates its judgement at every turn. Are you secure in the belief that the New York Times’ fierce opposition to Bush Administration anti-terror measures plays no role in its decisions to reveal such sensitive information? The Scoreboard is not.

What the Times and other papers do is information laundering: taking classified information that would be a felony if the leaker published it and making the illegal legal under First Amendment protections. It is no more and no less than aiding and abetting a crime, with no risk of accountability to ensure judicious practice.

It is revealing that the defenders of the Times’ conduct have mounted little more than rationalizations. For example, New York Senator Chuck Shumer, in his less than ringing defense on the Sunday Morning talk shows, could only say that the Times’ GOP critics didn’t similarly condemn the press for printing White House leaks of Valerie Plame’s CIA status. Well, I suppose so, Senator but 1) they should have; 2) that leak constituted a possible felony and prompted the appointment of an independent prosecutor and 3) it was a far less important piece of classified information than what the Times leaked. Other Times’ defenders tried to change the subject by attacking the Bush Administration for stating the truth: the Times story was irresponsible and an abuse of freedom of the press to the detriment of national security.

These individuals need to re-read their Bill of Rights: freedom of the press does not insulate the media from criticism and accountability when it behaves badly. It also should not permit the press to assist politically motivated leakers in breaking the law and jeopardizing national security, especially during wartime.

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