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

Loosen those nooses

Those treason charges against Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. seem to have burned themselves out pretty quickly. More than anything, I don’t think the New York Times-bashers could overcome this op-ed piece in last Friday’s Times by terrorism experts Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey. Under the headline “A Secret the Terrorists Already Knew,” they wrote:

Administration officials made the same kinds of complaints about news media accounts of electronic surveillance. They want the public to believe that it had not already occurred to every terrorist on the planet that his telephone was probably monitored and his international bank transfers subject to scrutiny. How gullible does the administration take the American citizenry to be?

Terrorists have for many years employed nontraditional communications and money transfers — including the ancient Middle Eastern hawala system, involving couriers and a loosely linked network of money brokers — precisely because they assume that international calls, e-mail and banking are monitored not only by the United States but by Britain, France, Israel, Russia and even many third-world countries.

While this was not news to terrorists, it may, it appears, have been news to some Americans, including some in Congress. But should the press really be called unpatriotic by the administration, and even threatened with prosecution by politicians, for disclosing things the terrorists already assumed?

The next day, Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet and Keller, the New York Times executive editor, wrote an op-ed that was published in both of their papers. (The L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal broke the story around the same time as the N.Y. Times, but haven’t paid nearly as high a political price.) It’s a well-considered, well-reasoned argument for going to press. They noted that the papers have withheld information that could genuinely damage national security, and also that government officials sometimes want sensitive information revealed when they think it will make them look good. I like this passage in particular:

Government officials, understandably, want it both ways. They want us to protect their secrets, and they want us to trumpet their successes. A few days ago, Treasury Secretary John Snow said he was scandalized by our decision to report on the bank-monitoring program. But in September 2003 the same Secretary Snow invited a group of reporters from our papers, The Wall Street Journal and others to travel with him and his aides on a military aircraft for a six-day tour to show off the department’s efforts to track terrorist financing. The secretary’s team discussed many sensitive details of their monitoring efforts, hoping they would appear in print and demonstrate the administration’s relentlessness against the terrorist threat.

The Baquet-Keller piece was an improvement over Keller’s earlier solo effort, which made some good points but was marred by a defensive, somewhat whiny tone. My colleague Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism and a former L.A. Timesman, argues that Keller’s first piece panders to the N.Y. Times’ base, whereas the second succeeds in reaching out to a broader constituency. Burgard writes:

Whatever these Americans may think of a particular president, they of course will want the government to succeed, and will think about press decision-making along a spectrum of what might or might not cause real harm. In such an instance, where the perceived interests of the government and a free press are in collision, the readership for the editor is no longer restricted to the regular readers and detractors. The real audience is in fact the entire nation.

So will Rep. Peter King, Sen. Jim Bunning and their ilk stop taking noose measurements long enough to think seriously about what has happened? Probably not. But if bringing espionage charges against the media was ever on the table, it’s certainly off now.

I do think the New York Times made one significant mistake: By presenting the financial-tracking story as a blockbuster, it appeared to be blowing the cover on a valuable, and, it would appear, entirely legal program.

Whatever misgivings folks might have had about the Times’ earlier exposure of the NSA’s no-warrant wiretapping program, it was hard to scream “Treason!” when the White House was so obviously breaking the law. The Times couldn’t fall back on that this time. Instead, it should have made it clear that this was not new information — rather, it was an in-depth look at how the White House was following through on a promise it had made within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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  1. Steve

    Dan, I think you are underestimating the persistence of the right-wing nutjobs in the media, and the hunger of their audience for the “media = liberal traitors” script.Witness filth like this (highlighted by TPM Muckraker).The record of the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress is dismal and indefensible, and trashing the media is tried and true “red meat” for the part of their base that remains unthinkingly loyal. We’re going to see and hear this dreck from now until election day and beyond.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Steve — According to the article you linked to, the protest was led by the Free Republic and Accuracy in Media. Obviously nothing is ever going to make them happy.

  3. Anonymous

    Dan,Unlike those who still fight the last presidential election? Those right-wing nut jobs like AIM are not the result of spontaneous generation. They are a reaction. About the only thing that is “indefensible” in this country is the blind polarization that passes for political discourse these days.

  4. Anonymous

    The original NY Times repeatedly called the SWIFT monitoring program and claimed that officials had asked the Times not to publish information about it. It also said the program has in fact helped bust terrorists (or was it maybe just one?). It also didn’t make any mention of the program already having been described in public. Even Keller’s second explanation dwells on the importance to inform the public, not on the published informtion already having been made public.Even if the Times is guilty of treason I don’t see how it could be satisfactorily tried without more secrets or operational detail or what have being given away. A treason prosecution against a newspaper, especially one of America’s leading newspapers, is clearly a nuclear option, so to speak.It’d be best if the treason talked faded away and Times became even more circumspect about publishing details or secrets about anti-terror efforts.Finally, the Times and other newspapers should not take it upon themselves to publish whatever an official, no matter how highranking, blabs about to make himself look good. I think it’s safe to say that many members of Bush’s administration and his appointees don’t have very good judgment

  5. Stella

    S.W.I.F.T. = Sullen, Witless, Ignorant, Feckless, Thieves.Only fools ignore the fact that as the seed is planted, so grows the tree. The catastrophic failures that followed the heist of the 2000 election were, and remain, predictable.

  6. MeTheSheeple

    Anon 11:17 p.m.:It’d be best if the treason talked faded away and Times became even more circumspect about publishing details or secrets about anti-terror efforts.If, as you say, the Times published nothing that hadn’t already been known; was circumspect about harming national security; and seems to be acting in good conscience, I’m confused.Why do you seemingly advocate greater self-censorship at a well-behaved paper, and reward administration attacks based on lies with a seeming endorsement of an apparent intimidation effort?

  7. Anonymous

    I don’t know whether the Times “published nothing that hadn’t already been news,” but some of the defense of the Times that Dan quotes approvingly makes that claim. I’m actually quite confused about what was and what wasn’t known about the SWIFT program. If somebody had asked me whether the U.S. tracks or monitors money transfers/exchanges as part of the war on terror I would have said of course it does. Would SWIFT have come to mind? Highly, highly unlikely.As for self-censorship, I recall many a media critic, including Dan himself (but I could be wrong on that count) praising self-censorship during the Mohammed-cartoons controversy. Why the religious-supremacy feelings of fundamentalist Muslims, or any Muslim, should be considered more important than our national security is something I don’t quite understand.Whether the Times article actually undermined national security even the littlest of bits is unclear at this point, but the original Times article certainly suggested that it revealed an important and “closely held secret.”

  8. Steve

    Dan – I guess it’s only a small step from Freepers to Malkin, but Malkin is still touting the treason line today -“Avoid the newspaper of wreckage, and help keep American safe”.Nothing will make them happy, but they still hold their media megaphones. This will be red meat for their campaigns through November.

  9. metallicaMobes

    well said

  10. Steve

    Oh, and one more bit of evidence that this isn’t going to stop any time soon – here is an important piece by Glenn Greenwald about the thuggish tactics the right is now turning to.

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