Last week the New York Times published an account of the Bush Administration's efforts to trace terrorist monies circulating the globe. The President had asked the so-called newspaper of record not do so. When it went ahead anyway, the President blew a gasket. He called the Times' editors irresponsible and, by implication, questioned the patriotism of those who would jeopardize a program created to defend the Republic. Several in congress called the Times' action treasonable.
This is the latest incident in a lengthening history of Administration officials who have found cause to butt heads with folks in the fourth estate because their reading of the First Amendment differs widely from their own. Even before Sept. 11, 2001 Bush's White House had been tagged the most secretive in many an administration. Afterward, its inclination to be closemouthed, except when it suited some questionable political purpose, became even more clam-like.
For it's purposes, Administration attacks on the Times are usually a win-win situation. Among many in the now faltering Republican Party base, the newspaper is regarded as little more than a socialistic rag out to denigrate their leader, in wartime no less. Attacking the bastion of the East Coast liberal elite is a sure fire shot in Republican strongholds. Look no further than the ARA Motel on Route 41, where the welcoming sign recently suggested the Times is just so "charmin" - toilet paper.
To question the validity of the Times' assertion of its readership's right to know is one thing. By the way, who didn't know the feds were monitoring these transactions? Bush and Co. had oft-trumpeted their intentions to do so. On occasion, they even reported how well they were doing. But to impugn the patriotism of editors fulfilling their constitutional obligations under the Bill of Rights reeks of political opportunism. The founders, fearful of resurgent monarchism, expressly granted the press its role as the people's check on the power of government - their government. From this perspective, the Times' editors was simply doing its job.
With this year's July 4th celebrations behind us, the parades having passed by, the fireworks having fizzled, Americans would do well to detach themselves from the White House vitriol and collectively clarify what it means, what it requires to be a patriotic American. What, with the Iraq war, and the broader terrorist threat, Americans are understandably anxious about what the future holds. Retreat into unquestioning patriotic fervor, America right or wrong, provides both a psychological haven and justification for actions taken to counter the threat to oneself, one's country.
But as so many Americans now appreciate, the blinkered perspective thus induced allowed this nation to be taken into war without first thoroughly illuminating the ramifications of such a monumental step. Included in this blurring of the national vision, and to their shame, must be included the New York Times and most other mainstream media outlets. The media's unwillingness to aggressively counter the patriotic outpouring generated by the Bush Administration's rhetorical concoctions before the invasion of Iraq, instead of checking governmental power augmented it. The outcome is clear for all to see: a war of which the majority of Americans now regard as a tragic mistake.
Americans cannot have it both ways. Either the press serves as a vigilant guardian of the people's right to know, even to the point of occasionally crossing the line of defensible secrecy, or it submits to political and public pressure at times, such as on the brink of war, and winds up serving the institutions its role is to scrutinize. When it does both, as is the case with the Times (eg. the Judith Miller WMD fiasco etc.) the media jeopardizes it's standing, it's all-important integrity, in the eyes of those who count on it for a glimpse of the whole truth.
In a conspiratorial frame of mind, one wonders if Bush's latest salvoes weren't fired at the Times to further undermine the public's faith in the reliability of what's revealed. Already at an all-time low, public mistrust of the media serves the preference of governments, regardless of party, to operate without the intrusion of a probing press. Informing the electorate by press release is much less bothersome than confronting an antagonistic reporter determined to cut through the double-speak and get at the truth.
That's why the Bush White House shuns the likes of veteran truth-seeker Helen Thomas. It's also why a discerning public should congratulate the Times for returning to its essential purpose - letting you know what's going on so you may make informed decisions about what your government should do next.
Tav Murray lives in Christiana. His e-mail address is email@example.com.