By honoring the New York Times and the Washington Post for their work in exposing the Bush administration’s covert and legally dubious campaign against suspected terrorists, the Pulitzer Prize board yesterday signaled a final end to the media’s post-9/11 skittishness with respect to tough coverage of the White House. The media, in effect, reasserted their independence.
Some conservative supporters of President Bush have argued that the Times could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for revealing the existence of the National Security Agency’s secret, no-warrant wiretapping program — an example of journalistic derring-do that Bush himself publicly labeled a “shameful act.” (Bush was specifically referring to the leak that led to the story. But it seems clear that he was referring as well to the story, which the Times had refrained from publishing for more than a year at Bush’s request.)
Right on cue, Scott Johnson of the conservative Power Line blog denounced what he called “The Pulitzer Prize for Treason,” writing that the Times article, by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “clearly violated relevant provisions of the Espionage Act — a particularly serious crime insofar as it lends assistance to the enemy in a time of war.” For good measure, Johnson drew a parallel to Walter Duranty, the Times reporter who infamously ignored Stalin’s crimes against humanity in the 1930s.
Stephen Spruiell, who writes National Review Online’s Media Blog, was more restrained, contenting himself with referring to the Times’ and the Post’s Pulitzers as “highly politicized” awards that were “based on anonymous sources who sought to damage the Bush administration.”
Although I have not yet run across any commentary suggesting that the Post may be in the same kind of legal peril as the Times, there’s no question that Dana Priest’s reporting, revealing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, has raised precisely the same hackles on the right. And, as is the case with the Times, the leak that led to Priest’s story is under investigation.
What we have here is a situation analogous to the Pentagon Papers. Our two leading newspapers — then, as now, the New York Times and the Washington Post — have exposed government secrets about how the administration has waged war. Then, as now, journalists argued that the public has a right to know what’s being done in its name. Then, as now, the White House and its supporters contend that the press is engaged in acts that are, at best, unpatriotic and, at worst, treasonous.
No doubt we’ll hear that these awards were the work of out-of-touch intellectuals at Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzers. Well, to invoke a Clinton-era cliché, the juries that chose to honor the Times and the Post look like America.
The jurors who picked the Times for one of two national reporting awards came from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, USA Today, Newhouse News Service and the Dallas Morning News. For the Post, which won in the beat reporting category, it was the Sacramento Bee, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Philadelphia Daily News, the John S. Knight Fellowships, the News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla., the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Orlando Sentinel. Clearly this was not an Ivy League plot.
For the Pulitzer board to cast its lot on the side of a free press yesterday was an important symbolic act that will be invoked over and over again in the ugly legal and political battles to come.