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July 7, 2006

It's a Classified War

"The institutional press, its fourth estate identity, and what Ben Bradlee called a 'holy profession' (because 'the pursuit of truth is a holy pursuit')— these are all modern inventions. Their legitimacy derives not from the founding fathers but from the opinion of living Americans."

Bank Data Is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror.

Secret U.S. Program Tracks Global Bank Transfers.

Since those headlines appeared on June 23 storm conditions have prevailed over the big castle of press authority. (Picture of the skies on June 28.) Some thoughts I hope you haven’t read everywhere else…

Precisely because no one elected the press it must find other means of securing its legitimacy. These are inevitably political in nature; they involve persuasion and “public opinion” as well as the protections of law. Whether the journalism is handcrafted and opinionated, or mass-produced and just-the-facts, the press isn’t trustable unless it is independent of the people in charge, and stands apart from interest groups competing for power.

So independence is one means of securing legitimacy. Verification before publication is another. Transparency is a third. (Bill Keller in speeches: “As your math teacher might have said, we show our work.”)

The institutional press, its fourth estate identity, and what Ben Bradlee recently called “a holy profession” (because “the pursuit of truth is a holy pursuit…”)— these are all modern inventions. Their legitimacy derives not from the founding fathers but from the opinion of living Americans that an independent and truthtelling press is vital to have as a check on government power, that its loss would be dangerous to their well being, and that professional journalists are doing the job well enough now to be that vital check.

When there are people in politics who wish to change that opinion into… An independent and truthtelling press is vital but the press we have is not independent, it’s aligned with a liberal elite, and has become a threat to national security… they cannot be defeated by invoking the founders or reciting the Constitution. There have to be other ways of arguing the case and fighting back.

Dana Priest of the Washington Post had a good starting point: “We are covering the war on terror, it’s a classified war.” Right. So what does the press do?

For example as Glenn Greenwald does: “Americans have abandoned this administration due to a long list of intense grievances with the President, and relentless, hysterical attacks on newspapers are highly unlikely to make them forget about those grievances… Ultimately, any institution or group which commits the Greatest Sin of opposing the President and imposing any limits on his powers will be subjected to this same treatment.”

Hugh Hewitt at the new boombox version of “The picture that has emerged after a week is of two for-profit newspapers, eager for Pulitizers and aware of the other’s hunt for a headline, disregarding the urgent arguments of senior government officials and running a story on a program only dimly if at all understood by some (and by no stretch of the imagination all) terrorists, the result of which is to alert the world and even the below-average-intelligence killer of one key way the United States tracks them.”

Let’s not pretend there can be any “debate” between those views. Storm conditions, yes. Discourse, no. (See Jack Shafer’s Bush or Keller?) Where I could see a debate emerging is over Priest’s observation: how should an independent press cover a classified war, or should it even try? If you think the press has no business digging into the government’s secret fight against terrorism, then what Dana Priest and others do is deeply illegitimate at the start. This is different than criticizing bad journalism or poor judgment.

“‘Trust us’ is not a winning argument in America — either with newspaper editors or the public at large,” he writes. But that is what the “holy profession” says, especially when it relies on confidential sources. (And “we show our work” is vacated.) It’s also the argument of the Administration. Trust us; we know things you don’t. No, we can’t show our work. But you understand why. It’s the nature of the war we’re in.

David Ignatius sees the cracks: “We journalists usually try to argue that we have carefully weighed the pros and cons and believe that the public benefit of disclosure outweighs any potential harm. The problem is that we aren’t fully qualified to make those judgments. We make the best decisions we can, but they are based on limited knowledge.”

That’s part of the problem. Hosting Meet the Press July 2, Andrea Mitchell turned to Bill Safire. A lot of people think the Times is “motivated by an anti-Bush animus,” she said. “Is The New York Times making a decision that is political rather than editorial?” What escapes her imagination is an editorial call that requires political judgment too. The decision to publish secrets is like that. It eludes the categories in current press think.

My views: I find the decision to publish the SWIFT story defensible, but more arguable than the earlier Times story on the National Security Agency. (That’s where Nick Kristof is on it.) I don’t understand why the information in this post from CounterTerrorism Blog didn’t make it into the newspaper reporting. (Neither does CJR Daily.) Whether damage was done in the fight against terrorism I cannot say; that evidence is shrouded in darkness. (Read Dan Froomkin on how little has come to light.) Look, it’s a classified war. The grounds for judgment are often missing.

We know this because the Times does not print everything it knows about what the government is doing. Nor do the other national dailies. “The fact is, journalists regularly hold back information for national security reasons,” writes Kristof, “I recently withheld information at the request of the intelligence community about secret terrorist communications.” I believe that. People in government know it happens.

But under storm conditions Heather MacDonald, writing in the Weekly Standard, can just say no. The Times, she says, is “so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified antiterror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives.” (My italics.)

If the Times decides not to publish, MacDonald would normally never know about it. In fact she has no idea which classified antiterror programs the Times found out about but did not reveal, and yet she went with her categorical statement (“by now it’s undeniable”) because it expressed the rage better. The rage may be real, her certainty about what the Times will do is faked. She doesn’t know enough to know.

At his blog, The Horse’s Mouth, Greg Sargent explained the reactions since June 23 as a “diversionary tactic.” It’s “really all about reuniting a Republican base that’s cracking under multiple strains,” he said. It’s true that the New York Times makes for outstanding culture war theatre, but I think election-year tactics do not explain the severity of the storm.

More is involved. There was one sentence that struck me as mighty revealing in the joint op-ed by Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, and Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times. They had just said that the conflict between the government’s “passion for secrecy” and the press’s drive to reveal things is not a recent development, which is true.

What has made the tension between press and government especially “clamorous” is that people in charge of the Bush White House decided on a strategy for rolling back the national press. It’s part of their reclamation and expansion of executive branch power. The aim is more freedom of action for the President and his powerful VP in going after the terror networks. As I have argued before, the Bush team changed the game on Washington journalists; and they knew they could get away with it.

For some reason Keller and Baquet decided not to mention any of that. (Maybe they agree with Robert Kaiser: “What isn’t new here seems more significant than what is.”) At Yearly Kos in Las Vegas, Matt Bai, who covers politics for the New York Times Magazine, said he agreed with me that the game had been changed, and the press had not responded very well.

David Remnick summed things up in this week’s New Yorker: “More than any other White House in history, Bush’s has tried to starve, mock, weaken, bypass, devalue, intimidate, and deceive the press, using tactics far more toxic than any prose devised in the name of Spiro Agnew.”

And this week the base has responded with ugly escalations of its own. If those are the tactics what is the strategy? I think it begins with Dick Cheney’s conviction that executive power was eroded after Vietnam and Watergate, and ought to be taken back from the institutions that had grabbed too much for themselves— especially the oversight troops in Congress and the “gotcha” press.

Another part of the puzzle was brought to my attention in 2004 by journalist Ron Suskind when he wrote of the “retreat from empiricism” in the governing style of George W. Bush. Attacks on the press are part of that. So is the distortion of intelligence.

I just finished reading George Packer’s fine book, The Assassin’s Gate. Chapter to chapter, it follows the retreat from empiricism in the build-up to the Iraq war. The way that war came to us required victory over the facts on the ground, and over people in the government who had knowledge of what was likely to happen. The Bush forces won that victory. Executive privilege got exerted on the terrain of fact itself. That’s at stake too in the storming of the press castle.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Extra, extra! Journalism deans weigh in. It’s a rarity to see any sort of statement from the heads of major university-based journalism programs. But here is When in Doubt, Publish by Geoffrey Cowan of USC, Alex S. Jones of Harvard’s Kennedy School, John Lavine of Northwestern, Nicholas Lemann of Columbia, and Orville Schell of Berkeley (Washington Post, July 9). The opening lines:

It is the business — and the responsibility — of the press to reveal secrets.

Journalists are constantly trying to report things that public officials and others believe should be secret, and constantly exercising restraint over what they publish.

Schell is also a PressThink author, see his J-Schools Have to Get More Involved from July, 2005. This new piece is an example of what he meant.

I’m glad the five men spoke up in a situation of urgency, and I would like to see more of it. I wish their statement added something—anything—to what has already been said in defense of the press, but alas…it does not. Maybe that’s too much to hope for with discourse by committee.

Chrtistopher Hitchens isn’t a fan of the Dean’s statement. Neither is Tom Maguire of Just One Minute. See his A Teachable Moment. Tom thinks it would be fun to ask J-school students whether they agree with the Deans (and Alex Jones, who isn’t a Dean) that Robert Novak made the wrong decision to reveal Valerie Plame’s name.

Jeff Jarvis, soon to be a J-school professor, isn’t satisfied: When and why to tell secrets. “I would have hoped for more from these people, in particular, more than just a defense of one American editor… academics should be able to better distance themselves from the fray of the moment and see where standards should lie.” Jarvis doesn’t care for the formula, “when in doubt, publish.” Neither do I. I don’t think it says anything.

Hitchens also makes a crucial observation about this story: “If the House intelligence committee regards itself as being kept in the dark, what is the press to do but make the assumption that there is too little public information available rather than too much?”

Letter to Romenesko from Tim Graham of the conservative-leaning Media Research Center (and a PressThink author): “The liberal media elite assumes the word of Bill Keller descends from Mount Olympus, and that no one can question his newspaper’s quite obvious political agenda.”

William Powers in National Journal: “Watching the story play out, I’ve found myself hoping that reasonable heads don’t prevail on this one, that the conflict will get hotter and uglier and eventually wind up in court, a la Plame only more dramatic. Why? Because this country needs to have a great, big, loud, come-to-Jesus argument about the role of the press in a time of war, terror, and secrecy.”

Jacon Weisberg, editor of Slate: “The New York Times, while acting in good faith, made the wrong call by printing the SWIFT story.”

Kevin Baker in Harpers: Stabbed in the Back! The past and future of a right-wing myth.

Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

Felicity Barringer of the New York Times in the comments:

The current generation of extremists, like their predecessors, want to expropriate the meaning of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the flag, making them the private preserve of their ideology or geopolitical perspective. That make it all the easier to label other perspectives obstructionist or treasonous.

So what’s wrong with making the case for press legitimacy on the documents that define us? This isn’t a quaint or irrelevant approach. It is a necessary — though perhaps not a sufficient — basis for increasing public support for an independent press in general and The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time and the rest in particular.

There’s more to her reply.

Daniel Conover in the comments.

Precisely because no one elected the press it must find other means of securing its legitmacy. These are inevitably political in nature; they involve persuasion and “public opinion” as well as the protections of law.

Granted. Now, given the emerging rules, relationships and capabilities of 21st century media, how do we approach solving this problem? How do we secure the legitimacy of journalism?

I’ve been a loyal PressThink reader since December 2004, and I’m beginning to think that this is the central theme interwoven through every thread here.

To secure is not the same thing as to defend.

Exactly. You can’t secure the press just by defending it. This is what the current post argues, as well.

From the post-script to this essay added to the Huffington Post version:

Also involved is a tendency noticed by Paul Krugman, who said this in a 2004 interview with Buzzflash:

For four years now, some of us have been saying, whether or not you think they’re bad guys, they’re certainly radical. They don’t play by the rules. You can’t take anything that you’ve regarded as normal from previous U.S. political experience as applying to Bush and the people around him. They will say things and do things that would not previously have made any sense — you know, would have been previously considered out of bounds.

… Mainstream political journalism is a system that falls apart when deviant or radical behavior overtakes centers of power. It isn’t capable of throwing out the playbook when confronted with a new threat, because it doesn’t have any other playbook and it can’t stop the presses long enough to work one out.

The rest.

Editor & Publisher reported this July 5: “Managing Editor Paul Steiger of The Wall Street Journal and Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. of The Washington Post were both asked to be part of last weekend’s unique joint Op-Ed piece by the editors of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, which defended the publication of stories about the secret SWIFT bank monitoring program, E&P has learned. But each declined.”

Recommended: Katrina Vanden Heuvel on The Nation, the New York Times, John F. Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs, and White House pressure not to publish.

Dean Baquet of the LA Times: “Newspapers don’t know how to respond to critics.” (See also Patterico’s worries.)

For the record, here’s the amazing, twisting, confounding and ultimately hilarious Wall Street Journal editorial denouncing the New York Times for running a story the Wall Street Journal also chased and published, and accusing publisher Arthur Sulzberger of wanting to obstruct the war on terror because he told college graduates that the world wasn’t supposed to turn out as it has.

I’ve read it four times and still can’t make sense of it, especially this sentence: “We suspect that the Times has tried to use the Journal as its political heatshield precisely because it knows our editors have more credibility on these matters.” Huh? But let Rachel Sklar have a go. Editorial Page editor Paul Gigot wouldn’t answer questions about it. I guess he thinks it speaks for itself! And here’s an email from a former WSJ staffer. The news staff of the Journal has been embarrassed many times before by the editorial page; but this was probably the worst. Indeed: “I’ve been here 16 years, and in my 16 years, this is something different,” political reporter Jackie Calmes told the New York Observer.

Frank Rich decoding it: “The Journal editorial page was sending an unsubtle shot across the bow, warning those in the newsroom (and every other newsroom) that their patriotism would be impugned, as The Times’s had been, if they investigated administration conduct in wartime in ways that displeased the White House.” Also see this televised exchange with Marvin Kalb and Paul Gigot.

Robert Kaiser, former managing editor of the Washington Post, before the current blow-up:

I am not going to disclose Priest’s sources (I don’t know who they were), but I do know there were many of them. I know that she traveled extensively to report the story. I know that her article, like virtually all the best investigative reporting on sensitive subjects that we publish, was assembled like a Lego skyscraper, brick by brick. Often the sources who help reporters with this difficult task don’t even realize that they have contributed a brick or two to the construction. Typically, many of the sources who contribute know only a sliver of the story themselves. A good reporter such as Priest can spend weeks or months on a single story, looking for those bricks.

I want to add, immodestly, that The Post’s record on stories of this kind is good. I don’t know of a single case when the paper had to retract or correct an important story containing classified information. Nor do I know of a case when we compromised a secret government program, or put someone’s life in danger, or gave an enemy significant assistance.

Katharine Graham, then publisher of the Washington Post, in 1986:

The terrorist has to communicate his own ruthlessness — his “stop-at-nothing” mentality — in order to achieve his goals. Media coverage is essential to his purpose.

If terrorism is a form of warfare, as many observers now believe, it is a form in which media exposure is a powerful weapon.

For those who want to see prosecutions, the guiding text is Gabriel Schoenfeld, Has the New York Times Violated the Espionage Act? (Commentary Magazine, March, 2006)

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 7, 2006 1:08 AM