Because the New York Times says so

Jonah Goldberg

7/5/2006 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
According to America's leading journalists, the United States government cannot run clandestine operations. Indeed, it cannot keep secrets or do anything in secret - if the press thinks "the people" should know about it. I put "the people" in quotation marks because for the press, it seems, "the people" are an abstraction. It needn't matter that the public understands some things should be kept secret; the press will tell them for their own good. And if the people complain, well, that means they're a bunch of yahoos and yokels who don't understand what a free press is for. Or, if the people are angry, it's solely because cynical conservative partisans in Washington are pulling their strings in a ploy to change the subject from their own failures.

Indeed, if you listened to the college of cardinals appearing Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," these are the only plausible explanations for criticism of the press for its disclosure of the government's terrorist banking surveillance program. Apparently, the producers couldn't find a single reporter from within the ranks of the elite media guild who is troubled by the guild's ever-expanding agenda to make itself the final authority on what can or cannot be secret. The Wall Street Journal's John Harwood, the Washington Post's Dana Priest, the New York Times' Bill Safire and the guest immoderator, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, refused to even consider the possibility that some critics are, you know, serious when they criticize the press. Bill Bennett was there for "balance" but received nothing but scorn for raising issues of "right and wrong."

Harwood and Safire were in complete agreement that expecting journalists to abide by secrecy laws is a "big step toward tyranny," in Harwood's words. Safire asked coyly: "Who elected the media to determine what should be secret and what should not?" He then answered his own question: "... the Founding Fathers did."

So, since serious people understand that holding the press accountable is tyrannical, the only plausible motive for criticism is Republican chicanery or flyover-state yahooism. "If you're a Republican in the White House or in Congress, would you rather talk about immigration, gas prices, the estate tax, all the things that you can't get done right now, or would you rather go after The New York Times?" asked Harwood.

Taking it even further, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll has suggested that the Republican attack on the New York Times is a cleverly anti-Semitic campaign because "many members of the president's base consider 'New York' to be a nifty code word for 'Jewish.'"

Consider the bowel-stewing arrogance of it all. By these standards, the press is simply never, ever, ever wrong in revealing classified information. Hell, it's their job! And, for some, it's not just stupid to be bothered by this, it's even a sign of bigotry.

Eric Lichtblau, the New York Times reporter who broke the banking story, offered a slightly different defense on CNN: The story really wasn't news. According to Lichblau, it's "common knowledge" that the government has been going after terrorist financial networks, so it's really no big deal that the Times revealed a specific program. By this logic, since it's "common knowledge" that we're fighting a war on terror, what would be the big deal with revealing all of our clandestine operations?

It is telling that the only leak that troubles the press and its cheerleaders is the Valerie Plame leak. When Dana Priest revealed the location of secret "CIA prisons," she was rewarded with a Pulitzer. When Lichtblau and James Risen disclosed the NSA surveillance program, they got Pulitzers, too. These revelations caused serious damage to America's ability to work with allies to fight terrorism and arguably put lives in danger. And yet the only leak to scandalize the media establishment was Plame's identity as a CIA employee. Why? Because it (allegedly) exposed the only serious enemy America faces: Karl Rove.

Look, I'm all in favor of a free press, and I oppose prior constraint. And of course, there's partisan cynicism and hypocrisy at play. (The White House loves to leak beneficial information to the press.) But there are merits to press criticism as well. What infuriates me is how anybody who raises these criticisms is caught in a Catch-22.

It works like this: The media gets to reveal anything it wants for any reason it sees fit in the name of "the people's right to know." But when the people, in their common sense, object to the disclosure of secret programs they expected their government to be conducting all along, the cognoscenti immediately ridicule the people for their ignorance. And when politicians or pundits echo the same concerns, the press immediately circles the wagons, declaring in its coverage and commentary that any such criticism is out of bounds, even un-American. It seems that for many of these people, free speech is a lot like government secrecy. Both are only legitimate when the New York Times says so.