Nicholas Kristof: Don't turn us into poodles

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: July 4, 2006

With President Bush leading a charge against this “disgraceful” newspaper, and a conservative talk show host, Melanie Morgan, suggesting that maybe The Times’s executive editor should be executed for treason, we face a fundamental dispute about the role of the news media in America.

At stake is the administration’s campaign to recast the relationship between government and press.

One mechanism is the threat to prosecute editors or reporters, for the first time, under the 1917 Espionage Act. Perhaps more likely may be an effort to subpoena James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, two reporters for this newspaper, to compel them to disclose confidential sources — and then to imprison them when they refuse. Granted, many Americans, believing that the press is arrogant and out of control, wouldn’t be bothered by that.

Two disclosures by this newspaper have sparked particular outrage: a report about National Security Agency wiretapping without warrants and one about a program to track terror financing by examining bank transfers.

The first scoop strikes me as the best of journalism, for it revealed possibly illegal behavior without any apparent risk to national security. The wiretapping was already well known, and the only new information was that it was conducted without warrants. That’s useful information to citizens, but not to terrorists.

The more recent disclosure about bank transfers seems to me a harder call. The program seems both legal and sensible, and it would be a setback in the unlikely event that bankers backed off in the glare of publicity.

So, I might have made that decision differently. But so far there is no evidence that the banking story harmed national security, and I’m sure that editors of this newspaper, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal weighed their responsibilities seriously, for they have repeatedly held back information when necessary. In contrast, the press-bashers have much less credibility.

Take Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who is head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Roberts has criticized The Times, but he himself is responsible for an egregious disclosure of classified intelligence. As National Journal reported in April, it was Senator Roberts who stated as the Iraq war began that the U.S. had “human intelligence that indicated the location of Saddam Hussein.”

That statement horrified some in our intelligence community by revealing that we had an agent close to Saddam.

No responsible newspaper would risk an agent’s life so blithely. And The Times would never have been as cavalier about Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity as the White House was. The fact is, journalists regularly hold back information for national security reasons; I recently withheld information at the request of the intelligence community about secret terrorist communications.

More broadly, the one thing worse than a press that is “out of control” is one that is under control. Anybody who has lived in a Communist country knows that. Just consider what would happen if the news media as a whole were as docile to the administration as Fox News or The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

When I was covering the war in Iraq, we reporters would sometimes tune to Fox News and watch, mystified, as it purported to describe how Iraqis loved Americans. Such coverage (backed by delusional Journal editorials baffling to anyone who was actually in Iraq) misled conservatives about Iraq from the beginning. In retrospect, the real victims of Fox News weren’t the liberals it attacked but the conservatives who believed it.

Historically, we in the press have done more damage to our nation by withholding secret information than by publishing it. One example was this newspaper’s withholding details of the plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion. President Kennedy himself suggested that the U.S. would have been better served if The Times had published the full story and derailed the invasion.

Then there were the C.I.A. abuses that journalists kept mum about until they spilled over and prompted the Church Committee investigation in the 1970’s. And there are secrets we should have found, but didn’t: in the run-up to the Iraq war, the press — particularly this newspaper — was too credulous about claims that Iraq possessed large amounts of W.M.D.

In each of these cases, we were too compliant. We failed in our watchdog role, and we failed our country.

So be very wary of Mr. Bush’s effort to tame the press. Watchdogs can be mean, dumb and obnoxious, but it would be even more dangerous to trade them in for lap dogs.

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