By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Independence day

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.


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5 Comments

  1. whispers

    The First Amendment doesn’t apply to articles exposing lawbreaking by the Executive Branch if the President can conjure some “national security” argument? I thought the lesson from the Pentagon Papers case was that, esp. if the Executive Branch is asserting too much power, then the First Amendment protects those who would wish to expose deceptions. I would presume lawbreaking would have the effect of nullifying any claim of executive privilege.The alternative would seem to be that the Constitution protects the President’s ability to violate the Constitution. It’s hard for me to swallow this argument. (And no, I’m not saying this is your argument, Dan, I’m just confused and baffled by the legal arguments advanced by Scott Johnson.)Can an illegal program still be considered to be “classified”? Isn’t classification of information a power given to the government by the people with the tacit constraint that the people using it follow the law?

  2. Steve

    Whispers – I think if you go back and read the Pentagon Papers case, along with the opinion journalism of the time, you’ll find a lot of rhetoric that looks like Scott Johnson’s. I bet you’ll even find some opinions of the Iran-Contra debacle that are similar. And, of course, you’ll find many many opinions like this expressed during the early-50s McCarthy era.The pattern seems to be “There’s a war going on. The government should be allowed to take whatever actions are necessary to prosecute the war, no matter what the Constitution might say, and if you expose government wrongdoing, you are a traitor.”These arguments ultimately did not pass legal muster in the McCarthy era, nor in the Vietnam era, nor in the Reagan era. In my opinion, they’re not valid now either. The final judgement will probably occur in the Supreme Court, however, and I have the sinking feeling that this court is “in the bag” for anything a Republican president wishes to do.

  3. Anonymous

    I’m about halfway through Risen’s book “State of War.” I’ve been paying pretty good attention to what has been going on in the world in recent years, and I have to say, Risen (he was on one of the Times’ Pulitzer-winning teams) really hit one out of the park with the NSA domestic spying stuff. As for Assrocket and his crew, well they can go s**t in a hat. At what point will people look at the historical benchmarks for this stuff (Pentagon papers, McCarthyism, Nixon spying that led up to the creation of FISA courts, etc.) and ask themselves, heck, what if, say, the Pentagon papers never came out. What if McCarthy was never stopped? What if Iran-Contra kept on going? Jeesus. I fear that Sandra Day O’Connor’s grossly–GROSSLY–underreported comments to the effect that steps are being taken right now that could plunge us (yes, the good ole’ USA) into dictatorship may prove prophetic. It was a great ride, Constitution. Nice to have known you.

  4. Don

    I will have to disagree with you that the New York Times and the Washington Post are our two leading newspapers. Especially the Times, which has been thoroughly discredited of late. I realize that employment with them would be a financial boost for you, but at what cost to your integrity?As to the role of journalism, it is to report the facts and avoid being a political arm for any party. I was particularly impressed with the Campus Echo, the student newspaper of North Carolina Central University, for their repeated use of forms of the word “alleged” when reporting the story of the alleged rape of one of their own. I suspect the mainstream media would not be as diligent.

  5. whispers

    The NY Times and the Washington Post are the two leading newspapers in the US. They certainly are the most influential. Who else would qualify? USA Today is still a bit of a McPaper, although it occasionally does good work (and has a tremendous sports section). The LA Times? One of the Chicago papers? The Wall Street Journal? Outside of business matters, the WSJ does nothing. Both the NY Times and the Washington Post have their flaws, and many have been glaring recently. I would say that the Post has been embarrassing itself more in recent days, esp. in terms of what the editorial board has been thinking. (A “Good Leak”? Ben Domenech?) The real story is not that these two papers have been passed by other print media. They’ve been passed by TV, broadcast and cable, and more recently by the Web. I never get my news from newspapers anymore. While print media definitely maintains higher standards of quality than TV, the web has better coverage, in more depth, and quicker than the traditional newspapers do.

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