Mainstream media coverage conveys the impression that the Administration's attacks on the New York Times were motivated by the paper's 3,550-word story detailing US attempts to track terrorist financing methods, published despite an official request for self-censorship. In fact, they constitute another front in the Bush (& Co.) war on the press. And once again many members of the media have enlisted as apparatchiks in undermining their own putative profession, preferring ideology to independence and access to accountability.
Remember: The Administration has been bragging about its post-9/11 money-tracking efforts for years. The UN Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group discussed it in its December 2002 report to the Security Council, and former State Department official Victor Comras explained that "the information was fairly well known by terrorism financing experts back in 2002." "Quite frankly, I don't think the terrorists were tipped off to anything," said Ron Paul, like Bush a Texas Republican.
The reason that publishing the new details in the Times piece may have been a more difficult call than, say, the Times story on the Bush illegal domestic spying program — which it held for more than a year — is that unlike almost everything the Bush Administration does, instead of being arrogant and incompetent it's actually a good idea. Arguing for publication, however, would be the charge of honest journalism not to mention the program's potential for abuse, the Administration's lack of respect for constitutional niceties in its implementation and its demonstrated proclivity to lie to the public about virtually everything.
None of these nuances play much of a role in our benighted public discourse. Cheney called the decision to publish "offensive." Bush called it "disgraceful." Rumsfeld claimed the article would "cause the loss of American lives," and the crowing for editor Bill Keller's head has been nonstop as the right-wing echo chamber has ratcheted up its typical "work the refs" attack-machine into a furious frenzy of phony froth. New York Republican Representative (and IRA supporter) Peter King called for the Times to be prosecuted for violating the 1917 Espionage Act. Two hundred and twenty House members — including every Republican but Christopher Shays — voted to condemn it.
They were quickly joined by a group of conservative journalists and pundits who apparently prefer a Soviet-style political discourse to the kind envisioned by America's Founders. National Review editor Rich Lowry called upon the government to jail the reporters involved if they refused to reveal their sources, and the Review demanded that the White House revoke the Times's press credentials. Heather MacDonald, writing in The Weekly Standard, called the Times "a national security threat...drunk on its own power and...antagonistic to the Bush administration." Talk-show host Melanie Morgan said she'd have "no problem" if Keller were "sent to the gas chamber" for treason. And the always reliable David Horowitz insisted that the Times was purposely inviting assassination attempts against Cheney and Rumsfeld in its — I kid you not — travel section. (Even Rumsfeld was apparently in on it, however, having approved the photographs of his home for the offending article. These conspiracies can get real complicated...)
The most interesting recruits in the Bush team's journalistic jihad, however, were the editors of the Wall Street Journal. Their intervention proved particularly illuminating of the distinctions between honest journalism and fellow-traveling. "Would the Journal have published the story had we discovered it as the Times did, and had the administration asked us not to?" they asked. "Speaking for the editorial columns, our answer is probably not." Trouble is, the Journal's news editors did decide to publish the story mere hours after the Times story appeared. Its editorial page editors shamefully sought to explain away this inconvenience with the damning "guess" that the Administration "felt [Journal reporter Glenn] Simpson would write a straighter story than the Times." As if falsely insisting their own reporter was in the Bush tank wasn't bad enough, the editors went on to declare that the Times "has as a major goal not winning the war on terror but obstructing it." It's official: According to the judgment of the Dow Jones Corporation, when a newspaper acts methodically and responsibly to publish information of vital national importance that the government would prefer to suppress, it is on the side of terrorism. It's a shame Joe McCarthy isn't alive to enjoy all this.
Of course, it's hardly a coincidence that this orgy of Times-bashing is occurring just as Rove & Co. are ginning up the GOP base with stunts like the flag amendment, amendments against gay marriage and a wave of immigrant-bashing, now coming to a hearing near you. As Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern explained during the silly House vote to condemn the paper, "We are here today because there has not been enough red meat thrown at the Republican base before the Fourth of July recess." The meat is not merely unkosher; it's poisonous.
Why has the right's rage focused on the Times, when it was one of three papers to run the story? As the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carrol points out, the New York Times "contains the word 'New York.' Many members of the president's base consider 'New York' to be a nifty code word for 'Jewish.'" This isn't the first time the Rovian right has toyed with Jew-hatred. Remember the attacks on George Soros two years ago, with pundits like Tony Blankley using terms like "robber baron," "pirate capitalist" and "self-admitted atheist"?
The point is not that Bush, Cheney, Rove or even Blankley is an anti-Semite. It's that they will stop at nothing to discredit their perceived enemies. War may be politics by other means, but for the White House and its allies, politics is war and accountability is the enemy. As Dick Cheney explains in Ron Suskind's explosive new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," "It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It's about our response."
In wartime one loses the luxury of choosing one's allies; Judith Miller and Jayson Blair notwithstanding, now the Times is us.
By Eric Alterman
Reprinted with permission from The Nation