Who Decides What's Fit to Print?


During the current, predictable crisis in the Middle East, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that democracy was in danger of being lost to the forces of extremism. ‘It certainly is never going to work in the Arab/Muslim world if the US and Britain are alone in pushing it in Iraq ‘

Come again? More than three years after the invasion of Iraq, it is startling to discover that some supposed Middle East experts still cling to the belief that the US and its allies want truly representative democracy in the volatile region let alone in Iraq. The last thing Washington and London desire is an independent Iraqi Government that demands an immediate end to the occupation. After all, the US didn’t invade Iraq for the country’s rice supplies.

The NY Times has long been known as the newspaper of the political elite, amplifying and supporting the decisions of the American ruling class. The paper has been a recent critic of the Bush Administration, but was a key ally in the months leading to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is the NY Times‘s recent conduct, however, that has caused some of the most ferocious attacks on the paper since the WMD falsehoods emerged.

In late June, the NY Times disclosed a secret Bush Administration program to monitor the international money transfers of suspected terrorists. Details of the program existed in the public domain before the story came out, but the NY Times  greatly expanded on US dealings with Belgian group Swift, a centre for over 7,500 financial institutions in 200 countries. The story was timely because it revealed the secret ways in which our governments are waging the War on Terror. (It is worth noting that the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times also ran similar stories on the same day.)

The response was immediate. Conservatives claimed the paper was unpatriotic and aiding the terrorists. The Republican Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in Congress, Peter King, urged the Bush Administration to file criminal charges against the NY Times. ‘We’re at war’, said King, ‘and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous.’ (link here). The paper, he continued, was ‘pompous, arrogant and more concerned about a Left-wing elitist agenda than it is about the security of the American people.’

One university dean in San Antonio, Texas, cancelled the library’s subscription to the newspaper (library staff expressed outrage at the move). The University of the Incarnate Word’s Mendel D Morgan Jr sent an email to his staff:

Since no one elected the New York Times to determine national security policy, the only action I know to register protest for their irresponsible action (treason?) is to withdraw support of their operations by cancelling our subscriptions as many others are doing. If enough do, perhaps they will get the point.

A US soldier based in Iraq, TF Boggs, wrote a letter to the NY Times :

Thank you for continually contributing to the deaths of my fellow soldiers. You guys definitely provide a valuable service with your paper. Why, without you, how would terrorists stay one step ahead of us? I would love to hear a response as to why you deemed revealing this program a necessity, but that will probably come as soon as the Government decides to finally put you guys behind bars where you belong.

The Wall Street Journal editorialised that the NY Times was irresponsible for publishing the story and damned the paper for ‘obstructing’ rather than helping to ‘win the War on Terror.’ In times of war, the WSJ concluded, ‘sometimes all the news is not fit to print,’ revealing that if the government of the day asked the WSJ not to run a story, it would probably obey. The fact that a government may have less than pure reasons for withholding a story didn’t seem to bother the WSJ.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller was under fire but responded strongly to the criticism. He rightly argued that his paper had listened closely to Government wishes to withhold the information but remained ‘convinced that that the Administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.’

A NY Times editorial a few days later cemented the case: ‘The free press has a central place in the Constitution because it can provide information the public needs to make things right again. Even if it runs the risk of being labelled unpatriotic in the process.’

On 1 July, Keller and Dean Baquet, Editor of the Los Angeles Times, co-wrote an article in the NY Times titled, ‘When do we publish a secret?’. They stated that, ‘we, and the people who work for us, are not neutral in the struggle against terrorism If the freedom of the press makes some Americans uneasy, it is anathema to the ideologists of terror.’

The fact that the writers had to categorically state their dedication to ‘our’ side in the ‘War on Terror’ proved the poisonous environment in which they now operated. Keller and Baquet explained that the duty of a frank and fearless press was to reveal ‘secrets’ that governments would prefer were kept secret. (Former Counter-terrorism Chief Richard Clarke wrote in the NY Times that the ‘secret’ that was revealed was probably known by terrorists, anyway.)

A few weeks later, four leading university school deans wrote in the Washington Post:

It is the business and responsibility of the press to reveal secrets Most Americans want their government to be held accountable, which is the raison d’ ê tre of watchdog journalism. At the same time, they do not want the press to disclose government secrets that are vital to national security.

It was a defiant call in an age where zealots believe that a democratic media should not be upsetting or undermining the government of the day. In reality, it is the responsibility of fearless journalists to damage the credibility of the reckless Bush Administration as regularly as possible.

It is election year in the US and the Republicans are in trouble. In their desperation, Right-wing critics of the mainstream media have even issued calls for bloggers to reveal the addresses of all NY Times reporters and editors. This is nothing more than incitement to violence.

With Iraq in flames, the Middle East in chaos, and US influence in the region waning, the best journalists will continue to investigate the ways in which our governments have deliberately made us more vulnerable.

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