Freedom of the press? Where?

Last month, when the White House attacked The New York Times for revealing a secret Treasury Department surveillance program, it was tempting to conclude that the thieves were falling out among themselves. The Times, according to President Bush and his congressional stooges, had placed Americans in grave danger by alerting “terrorists” that U.S. authorities were trying to track their international money transfers.

What ingratitude on the part of Bush toward his former partners in propaganda! After all, the collaborative scare stories transmitted from Dick Cheney’s office and Times headquarters on Saddam Hussein’s atomic-bomb project have arguably made the Bush presidency what it is today.

Indeed, one could say that Bush owes his continued occupancy of the White House to the Gray Lady of American journalism. Above and beyond Judith Miller’s and Howell Raines’s front-page amplifications of administration lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the Times’ timely self-censorship proved essential to Bush’s re-election campaign. Had the “paper of record” recorded the existence of the National Security Agency’s warrantless (and unconstitutional) wiretapping program before the 2004 election _ instead of sitting on the story for more than a year _ we could very well be debating President John Kerry’s equivocations on Iraq, rather than President Bush’s incessant blather about staying the course.

But there are worse things than a pseudo-liberal newspaper’s cooperating with malevolent power in Washington. For example, there is The Wall Street Journal’s alarmingly mendacious suck-up response to the Bushwhacking of the Times.

The Journal, you may recall, published substantially the same story, the same day, as the Times, about the Treasury Department’s and the CIA’s monitoring of Swift, a Belgian cooperative that moves vast amounts of money around the world for big financial institutions. (Its stated goal is to nail “al Qaeda financiers,” though I’m mystified about how this would prevent low-budget fanatics from blowing up either U.S. soldiers or themselves in Iraq.) Nevertheless, the Journal’s editorial page announced last month that it wanted nothing to do with its supposedly radical Uptown Manhattan neighbors.

We know, of course, that the Journal’s opinion page is crackpot right-wing, but even crackpots (especially crackpots like Col. Robert McCormick, of The Chicago Tribune) were once known as defenders of the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government secrets.

In their June 30 editorial “Fit and Unfit to Print,” the popinjays of Liberty Street ridiculed the Times for “wrapping itself in the First Amendment.” Well, what else are they supposed to wrap themselves in _ The Wall Street Journal?

The press part of the First Amendment was designed to protect newspapers, acting in the public interest, against overweening government power. That the hysterical reactionaries of the WSJ think that we require less information about the government in wartime speaks more to the newspaper’s unconscious wish for a president who would be king than it does to the WSJ’s concern for the safety of ordinary Americans.

“Allow us,” the Journal pretentiously intoned, “to explain what actually happened, putting this episode within the larger context of a newspaper’s obligations during wartime.” What actually happened, if the Journal is accurate, is that the Times exhibited exemplary care before publishing the Swift story.

According to the Journal, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller tried to get the story right, delaying publication by a day to let Treasury officials return from overseas to correct with newly declassified information the “30 percent” of the story that the Times allegedly had wrong.

Having duly corrected the Times, says the Journal, the Treasury officials then “contacted Journal reporter Glenn Simpson to offer him the same declassified information … common practice in Washington (when) a story … is going to become public anyway. … Our guess is that Treasury also felt Mr. Simpson would write a straighter story than the Times, which was pushing a violation-of-privacy angle; on our reading of the two June 23 stories, he did.”

What childish nonsense. Anyone who has spent five minutes in the news business knows the drill:

A public official learns that an embarrassing story is about to break. The official or his subordinate tries to blunt the impact of the incipient scoop by giving some of the information to a competing news organization, preferably one that’s friendlier to the official. Even if the competitor isn’t that friendly, the official’s dropping the information on that newspaper’s reporter at the last minute forces the competitor to rush into print with a version more favorable to the official, if only because the reporter (in this case, Glenn Simpson) has had less time than his rivals (the Times’ Eric Lichtblau and James Risen) to flesh out the story and find critical reaction.

Meanwhile, the original version of the story, no longer exclusive, has lost some of its glamour.

“Straighter story” really means a story that is better for the Bush administration _ which was evidently very worried about the “privacy angle.” And, in fact, the Journal’s version of the story cites not a single critic of the secret Treasury spying program.

It does, however, feature lengthy quotes from then-Treasury Secretary John Snow and his counterterrorism chief, Stuart Levey, on just how scrupulous the government has been in respecting the privacy of non-terrorists.

I’m sure that Wall Street Journal readers everywhere were relieved to learn from Snow that the spying program “is not ‘data mining,’ or trolling though the private records of Americans,” and that “it is not a ‘fishing expedition,’ but rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity.” I couldn’t have written it better in a press release.

Irony aside, I was disturbed to learn that the Journal editorial page would “probably not” have published the Swift story had it been the editorial page’s call, instead of Managing Editor Paul Steiger’s. True, Dow Jones maintains strict separation between The Wall Street Journal newsroom and the royalists on the editorial page, and I suppose we can be thankful for that.

But the Journal’s cowardly shot at the Times _ in its institutional voice _ sounds a very sinister note amidst hotheaded talk about using the Wilson-era Espionage Act against newspapers and leakers. Just the threat of prosecution will chill an already timid press and intimidate its sources in the civil service. As the occupation of Iraq deteriorates further _ inevitably, since it’s based on a lie _ the threats from the Bush administration will only get louder. It’s then that we’ll find out if the American press still believes in freedom of the press.

(John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.)