Tuesday, June 27, 2006

HITTING BACK Just hours after Bill Keller's meandering, poorly-written open letter surfaced yesterday morning, New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau exacerbated things on The Newshour with a well-intentioned but dismal performance in a debate with Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA):
REP. CURT WELDON: This is outrageous! The New York Times, a profit-making entity, designed to improve their bottom line to make a profit, has decided that they can supersede members of Congress from both parties who are briefed on these important programs for our national security...

If members of Congress who are briefed and who are elected by the people determine that an administration has overstepped its bounds, then we have the ability and we have in a process to bring it back under control.

If the New York Times really wanted to do that, then they would have gone to members of Congress and said, "What are you going to do about this?" instead of broadcasting it all over the world. They didn't do that.

They chose the profit motive, to continue to make the profit that drives the bottom line of these newspapers. And that's outrageous.
Lichtblau's response to Weldon's bizarre and clearly facetious argument?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, I think there is, certainly, a growing tension, and that goes beyond, you know, the couple of stories that I've worked on. I mean, this is something we're seeing played out on a daily and weekly basis, with clashes between the media and the administration.

And, you know, there's a raging public debate, I think, between national security and the public's right to know, and oftentimes those interests conflict.
I'm sorry, that just doesn't cut it.

Look: I'm not saying that Lichtblau--and The Times--need to wade into the slime pit with Weldon and his friends. But couldn't Lichtblau at least challenge Weldon's farcical "profit motive" insinuations. (Does anyone really believe Keller polled the circulation department before publishing the bank records story?)

And would it really hurt Lichtblau to venture just a few words about the importance of a free press in a representative democracy?

It was one thing for reporters and media institutions to adopt an above-the-fray pose about First Amendment issues in the pre-9/11 era. But today, all national security reporters need to realize that their ability to do their jobs is under genuine threat. And they need to act accordingly.

Dennis Persica of The Times-Picayune, by contrast, refuses to hide under the covers. He asks some important questions here (via Atrios):

What would we as a profession do, and what would the rest of the American citizenry do, if, for example, the U.S. Attorney's office in New York, bolstered by a cadre of armed federal marshals, barged into the offices of The New York Times today?

They could claim that the Times is a threat to national security and that they need to scour the filing cabinets and computers of Times staffers to see if they can find the source of the stories that the administration and its supporters say are threatening national security. And they could also claim that they are trying to protect the nation against future stories that they fear could be a threat to national security.

The rest of us could rail all we wanted about the raid, but if the marshals are in the Times building I think you could accurately say that they have the upper hand.


Perhaps a slight majority of the country would be outraged by such a raid, but again, what could they possibly do? This would be no Pentagon Papers case where the argument is whether or not a newspaper should be allowed to publish. This would be a case where the federal government treats a newspaper as if it were an enemy saboteur, occupies its headquarters and seized its assets. Perhaps eventually, a court might tell the marshals to leave and to give back everything they had taken. But by then serious damage would have been done.

A scary scenario, but it might be time to start thinking about how we would respond to something like that. Or better yet, how we could prevent it.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.