Unity on a newspaper's terms

Posted: Jun 28, 2006 12:01 AM

"We have come together with a unity of purpose because our nation demands it. September 11, 2001, was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States. The nation was unprepared."

These are among the first lines of the 9/11 Commission's report. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other leading newspapers pushed hard for the creation of the commission and urged Congress and the White House to adopt its recommendations. All of the famous conclusions of the 9/11 Commission were given prominent attention in the pages of these papers. For example, when the commissioners scolded the government for its "failure of the imagination," the editorialists nodded like a chorus of bobbleheads.

In the years since 9/11, all of these organs have given a megaphone to those castigating the president for failing to unite the country more. Sept. 11 was a "missed opportunity," according to countless liberal voices, because in spite of the nation's unity, the president didn't ask for a shared sacrifice. All of these elite voices - and they number in the hundreds - subscribed to a pinched and narrow definition of "sacrifice." Indeed, it was a grand game of bait-and-switch. Unity and sacrifice must be measured in terms of tax hikes and economic redistribution.

As befits his role in public discourse, Bill Moyers provided an illuminating caricature of this thinking. After the 9/11 attacks, he wrote, "This catastrophe has reminded us of a basic truth at the heart of our democracy: No matter our wealth or status or faith, we are all equal before the law, in the voting booth and when death rains down from the sky." And because of this, Moyers argued, America must implement the usual laundry list of liberal social policies, including the repeal of NAFTA and the implementation of single-payer health care.

But Moyers was hardly alone. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proclaimed in the Washington Post that 9/11 justified a "new New Deal." The New York Times joyously proclaimed that "Big Government Is Back in Style," and its indefatigable chorus of asininity - Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd et al. - pounded their spoons on their high chairs about the un-Americanness of tax cuts during a war. "Since 9/11, our government has asked no sacrifice of civilians other than longer waits at airline security," Frank Rich whined.

Meanwhile, this self-proclaimed wartime-unity caucus seems to have no problem with undermining the actual war effort. The Washington Post exposed CIA operations and won Pulitzer Prize in the process. The New York Times earned a Pulitzer for revealing the National Security Agency's crucial wiretapping program. Whatever the journalistic merits - and there are obviously many - it cannot be seriously denied that the mainstream press has reveled in its relentless efforts to focus on stories and criticisms that paint the United States in general and George W. Bush in particular as the real problem in the war on terror. From Abu Ghraib to Haditha to Guantanamo and beyond, the press justifies America-bashing on the grounds that it isn't their job to be cheerleaders.

The glorious and heartbreaking irony of all this is that in the face of most of these revelations, the American people remain unified. The war in Iraq may be unpopular and controversial, but most Americans agree that the war on al-Qaida is serious, and they expect their government to do the sorts of things it is doing. And, they seem to understand that this sort of work has to be done in secret.

The wiretapping exposé was greeted with a yawn by most Americans, who assumed the government was doing this sort of thing. Indeed, when the NSA program was exposed and President Bush was painted by a hysterical media as a threat to civil liberties, his approval ratings went up.

But don't tell that to The New York Times and other publications that have taken it upon themselves to divulge whatever they please about the war on terror. This month, the Times exposed the government's ongoing program to track terrorists' financial transactions - a policy the Times itself vigorously editorialized in favor of. There have been no allegations of abuse or illegality. There are no pressing constitutional issues involved, and nobody seriously disputes that it is an important program. The Times simply thinks it's in the public interest to expose it and, hence, cripple it. The Times ignored pleas from a wide array of public officials, including the chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, who apparently see such efforts as the sort of "imaginative" work the government should be doing.

A glimpse into the thinking behind Times executive editor Bill Keller's decision to green-light the story can be gleaned by noting his tactic of referring to this as a program of the Bush "administration" rather than a government program. It seems the Times has simply concluded that a president who won't use the war on terror to unify the country on terms the newspaper finds favorable isn't justified in fighting that war at all.