Feeling grateful to the Bush administration is a rare experience. But sometimes the White House can do something right, even if for the wrong reasons.
The administration’s gift to the nation was to openly attack journalists. “[M]ore than any other White House in history, Bush’s has tried to starve, mock, weaken, bypass, devalue, intimidate, and deceive the press,” David Remnick recently wrote in The New Yorker.
That certainly wasn’t the president’s attitude while Judith Miller was transcribing Rumsfeld’s fantasy life, or when the press was regurgitating the administration’s conflation of the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein’s domestic crimes, or “balancing” coverage of global warming by citing industry flacks alongside peer-reviewed studies.
Now with Bush’s failure as palpable as a crowbar to the kneecap, the media are regularly reporting on the dismal state of the war, recognizing global warming as fact, outing NSA surveillance and interviewing former prisoners from America’s far-flung gulags. Bush has responded with open antagonism.
It’s about time. The press and those in power are not allies, buddies or teammates – not even in the war on terror. If their interests sometimes coincide, their roles do not. They are – they should always be – adversaries, and if there is not tension, profound distrust and occasional loathing on both sides of the equation, the press is not doing its job.
Unfortunately, most of the media have reacted to Bush’s attacks with great rhetorical waves of self-defense, often countering with how much information they actually do withhold on government request to “protect” national security. Writing about decisions to “withhold information of significance,” New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller notes: “We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so.” The government’s appeal to national security was apparently sufficiently compelling to make the Times withhold its story on potentially unconstitutional, warrantless NSA surveillance for a year. The investigation was eventually published after Bush’s re-election.
“The difference between burlesque and the newspapers,” noted muckraker I.F. Stone, “is that the former never pretended to be performing a public service by exposure.” When journalists expose government secrets and crimes, they are simply doing their jobs. They do not need to spill endless ink justifying that role in a democracy – especially when there is no evidence that the disclosures put anything at risk but the president’s poll numbers.
But lack of evidence never stopped the Bush administration. In a classic case of misdirection, a president who undermined national security by illegally taking this country to war, by condoning torture, by violating the Constitution and by destroying the world’s goodwill is attacking the New York Times for “put[ting] our citizens at risk.”
“We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America,” said Bush about media disclosure of his banking surveillance program, “and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.” Vice President Cheney sang counterpoint with: “The New York Times has now made it more difficult for us to prevent attacks in the future.”
The good news is that whether reporters and editors like it or not, the administration’s attacks on the press clarify that in a democracy, journalists are not friendly sparring partners for those in power. They are natural enemies, and when they do their job, they risk unreturned phone calls, banishment from the elite dinner tables of Georgetown, public harassment and even jail.
That is the signal the Bush administration just sent the insufficiently cooperative media. Thank you, Mr. President.