Recently the NY Times has been engaged in what appears to be a campaign of its own: the publication of security secrets in the current war (on terror, on jihadis, call it what you will) waged by the US. Why is the Times bent on forcing the issue, publishing secrets that appear to violate no known rule or law, using as its excuse the public’s need to know?
Yesterday, in response to that question, I discussed one possible motivation for the Times’ behavior: to relive the glory days of the Pentagon Papers case. But there’s more.
The issues are large; see Alexandra’s post of today for a further discussion and roundup of the case against the Times. Also today, columnist Michael Barone ups the ante, asking, “Why does the NY Times hate us?”, writing that the paper’s editors, “have gotten into the habit of acting in reckless disregard of our safety.”
Towards the end of the piece, Barone asks:
Why do they hate us? Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack? They say that these surveillance programs are subject to abuse, but give no reason to believe that this concern is anything but theoretical.
I submit the following answer:
The press has long seen itself as a watchdog protecting the people. I’m not sure when this attitude began, but it was certainly present in the activities of the muckrakers of the early years of the twentieth century, journalists and writers who saw it as their calling to expose and publicize some of the excesses of big business, especially trusts. As such, they were crusaders, but they never (at least as far as I can determine) published secret information that threatened national security. Their concerns were almost exclusively domestic.
That changed, as so much did, during the Vietnam and Watergate era, in which national security concerns were added to the muckraking function of the press. I’ve delineated and explored the change in many previous posts (see this and especially this, for example).
Here’s an especially relevant quote from the latter:
The antiwar movement that rose as a result of the Vietnam War had a distrust of American power and intelligence gathering and of agencies such as the CIA. The events of Watergate only “deepened the aversion,” since the burglars included former intelligence officers, and Nixon also used the CIA to obstruct the work of the FBI in trying to investigate the break-in. Furthermore, the CIA was engaged in some domestic spying scandals and other acts considered excesses, such as attempts to assassinate foreign leaders (investigated by the Congressional Church Commission of the mid-70s). The upshot of all this was, among other things, a desire to limit the power of the executive branch of government and of intelligence-gathering, because the fear was that these entities, unchecked, could (and would) combine in corrupt ways to undermine our liberties.
Some have said, cynically, that the Times editors are simply out to sensationalize and boost readership. This certainly may be operating, at least in part. But in my opinion that it’s not the main motivation. I see the driving force for this campaign as the editors’ deep conviction that providing this information to us is their way of protecting us: it’s the muckraking impulse gone mad.
In the decades since the 60s, the press has come to see itself as a sort of secret society, bound to protect and serve us by curbing what it sees as a government that–as in Watergate, as in 1984–is bound and determined to spy on us and curb our liberties. As such, editors make the decisions as to what is in our best interests, and they have deemed the threat from the actions of our own government to be far greater than any threat from jihadis.
This is both arrogant and an inappropriate throwback to the Vietnam-Watergate era, but I actually believe (and call me naive, if you like) that the vast majority of these MSM campaigners (such as Keller, Times editor) are convinced of their own rightness and self-rightousness, and that this is primarily what fuels them. And their arrogance has continued to grow because they have suffered virtually no consequences for their actions; they have become a law unto themselves.
The founders gave freedom of the press to the people, they didn’t give freedom to the press. Keller positions himself as some sort of Constitutional High Priest, when in fact the “freedom of the press” the Framers described was also called “freedom in the use of the press.” It’s the freedom to publish, a freedom that belongs to everyone in equal portions, not a special privilege for the media industry.
Reynolds refers to the Times editor’s position as “hubris,” and I think he is exactly right, at least in the metaphoric sense. And Austin Bay sums it up quite succintly when he says that, “exposing the terrorist finance-monitoring operation information amounts to spying for terrorists.”
There is really no other way to put it. The press considers itself to be a watchdog, but the Times is a rabid one that has turned on its owners and keepers, the people.
What to do? One possibility is the passage of a National Secrets Act, as I’ve discussed here and here. But perhaps that’s not necessary. The current Espionage Act may be enough, as Barone suggest in his column; rather than prosecute the Times itself, the leakers who are breaching national security by divulging information to the Times could themselves be prosecuted, and in the course of discovery for such a case, the Times would have to testify as to who the leakers are or face contempt of court charges.
Would that be enough? Hard to say, but I think it should be done. The watchdog is ill, and needs to be curbed.