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Press critics turn up the heat

By
July 10, 2006

Pipe up with criticism of The New York Times’ publication of a story on tracking down terrorist financing, as President Bush did, and you find many of the paper’s defenders accusing you of attacking press freedom, even though you have done nothing of the kind.

The tactic is the equivalent of saying someone is unpatriotic if he disagrees with U.S. foreign policy, a way of wrapping yourself not in the flag exactly, but in the First Amendment, and hiding there from charges of gross arrogance and irresponsibility.

The fact that some Times columnists would seek this refuge is particularly obnoxious, considering that the Times in a 2004 editorial essentially said that the government should wreck a TV broadcasting company if it exercised its rights as spelled out in the Constitution. The paper’s allegiance to free press and speech seems to reach little further than its own newsroom.

It’s true that Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., wants an investigation and prosecution of the Times on charges of treason, and that some bloggers and others say hip, hip, hurrah to the idea, but the administration itself isn’t having any. As is the case with most critics and congressional Republicans, the administration has gone no further than to say the Times made an outrageously bad judgment call weakening a program that has saved lives by thwarting terrorist ambitions. The unavoidable conclusion, as voiced in a resolution of the House, is that the Times and other papers that joined in breaking the story put lives at risk.

Read a column by Frank Rich of the Times, though, and you will be told that nothing in the Times story was a surprise to terrorists and that the president’s denunciation adds up to an “assault on a free press.” Other liberal commentators echo the sentiment. Even the American Society of Newspaper Editors issued a statement saying the administration and Congress “are threatening America’s bedrock values of free speech and free press with their attempts to demonize newspapers for fulfilling their constitutional role in our democratic society.”

Before turning his hand to tripe, Rich should have read the original Times story, which begins with these words: “Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks … ” As columnist Michelle Malkin has noted, the story referred to “the secret nature of the program no less than eight times.” There was almost surely material in it that terrorists did not know, at least not for sure. To then suppose that a sharp criticism of newspapers for breaking the story is the same as undermining freedom is a non sequitur that says in so many words that you dare not criticize us _ we are holy.

All of this might sit easier with me if the Times had not previously made it strikingly clear that its adulation of free speech is largely a partisan, ideological matter. Hard evidence of its political motives can be found in a 2004 editorial, when the Sinclair Broadcasting Group was planning to air a documentary on POWs making clear their pain at a youthful John Kerry’s sweeping characterization of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam as war criminals.

The paper said the Federal Communications Commission “cannot ignore Sinclair’s poor record when it comes to meeting its obligation to act responsibly and fairly in the public interest, a duty it assumed when it accepted custody of a license to broadcast on the public airwaves. Broadcasting ‘Stolen Honor’ within two weeks of the election would clearly violate those commitments.”

In other words, if the company did not act in what the newspaper thought was the public interest, yank its license. Finish it off. The Times didn’t agree with a petition by Democratic members of the House and Senate to have the FCC exercise prior restraint _ in other words, censorship _ but it did make clear that something that might be hurtful to the Democratic candidate for president should be severely punished.

In an age of dozens of cable TV outlets, that argument is no different in kind from saying the government should shut down the New York Times for its opinion pieces and an administration-discomforting news story published near the 2004 campaign’s end that was at the least questionable in its speculation about the supposed theft of massive amounts of explosives in Iraq.

What is different is that no one _ not even the overreaching Peter King _ is going that far, as much as Times defenders might want you to think so.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)