Pssst to conservatives. Liberals spend as much energy as you bashing the New York Times, but they prefer to do it at dinner parties rather than at press conferences. From Brookline to Georgetown to San Francisco, lefties bemoan the decline of the Times, express outrage at their coverage of WMDs and decry their timidity when under attack.
Times Editor Bill Keller's closing remarks on CBS News' Face the Nation Sunday are an example of what drives libs crazy. In a comfortable interview Keller gave an extremely cogent explanation for why the paper reported on the surveillance program which tapped banking records to detect how terrorist groups were getting their money. He said it was their duty to inform the public about how the government was conducting the war on terror and that the story wasn't news to the terrorists and wasn't even as big a bombshell as the NSA eavesdropping story. Then, Bob Schieffer gave him a chance to hit a home run. "If you had something to say to people in America on this Fourth of July weekend about all this, what would it be, Mr. Keller?"
Instead of an all out celebration of freedom and democracy, Keller asked for mercy. "I guess I would say if you're under the impression that the press is neutral in this war on terror, or that we're agnostic -- and you could get that impression from some of the criticism -- that couldn't be more wrong. We have people traveling on the front lines with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've had people who've been murdered in trying to figure out the terrorist threat. You know, we live in cities that are targets, proven targets, for the terrorists. So we -- we're not neutral in this."
On Meet the Press, former Times columnist and Nixon speechwriter Bill Safire showed Keller a few tricks about knocking things out of the ballpark. Safire, a conservative who typically disagrees with the Times editorial positions, happens to agree with this decision. Here's his take: "Here we are on Independence Day weekend, 230 years ago, celebrating what was the resistance to a king who said 'We're going to hang you for treason.' And here we have a Long Island congressman, happens to be named King, who's saying 'treason' and 'put these reporters in jail.' I think there's a big fundamental thing going on here now, and across the board, of 'get the press, get the media.' And, look, I used to write speeches for Spiro Agnew, I'm hip to this stuff, and, and I can say that it gives you a blip; it gives you a chance to get on the offensive against the, the darned media. But in the long view of history, it's a big mistake."
The decision by the Bush folks to launch an attack on the liberal press last week reeked of old age. Nattering nabobs of negativism, the famous Safire phrase which was written for Vice President Spiro Agnew's blistering attack on the press in 1969 was their way, then and now, to get back on the offensive and rile up the conservative base. But, the fact that the New York Times believes it has to defend its concern about terrorism is an indication that they are taking the attacks more seriously than they need to.
The Times decision to print the story was not done lightly and it has stuck to its guns in the midst of the onslaught. The paper is an important institution and sets a standard for the rest of the media. As Dan Okrent, the first ombudsman for the New York Times writes in his book "Public Editor #1," "The Times is our one truly essential newspaper. The sheer ambition of its daily task is unmatched anywhere in journalism." Okrent spent eighteen months at the Times being attacked inside and out for his columns but says he was willing to do this — and even enjoyed it — because the Times matters.
While some of the criticism may have been thoughtful, the tone and the target smack of election year politics. Democrat Scott Lilly, in an article on the liberal Center for American Progress Website criticized the New York Times' decision to publish the story but says it is another Times, the conservative Washington Times that has done the most serious damage with security leaks — and notes that conservatives haven't uttered a peep of criticism about them. Lilly says that the NSA has routinely leaked to Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, but adds that "the most famous security breach by the Washington Times did not involve Gertz but another reporter. It was the Aug. 21, 1998, disclosure that the U.S. was monitoring Osama bin Laden's satellite phone conversations. Shortly thereafter bin Laden stopped using the phone, and the quality of U.S. intelligence on al Qaeda took a precipitous nosedive."
Keller acknowledged that "beating up on the Times is red meat for the conservative base," but took a generally dispassionate approach to the topic of the attacks. The Times, like much of mainstream journalism, is trying to mend its old arrogant ways but the paper doesn't need to defend its commitment to fight terrorism.
The Times sets the standard. They did the right thing in publishing the story not just because they have the first amendment on their side but because they have an obligation to the public to hold the government accountable. That's the Fourth of July message that Keller should be proud to shout from the rooftops.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, my father ended his career as a pressman for the New York Times and I was a member of the CBS News-New York Times polling consortium from 1985-2005. Reading and bashing the Times are two of my favorite pastimes.
By Dottie Lynch