Wednesday, May 21, 2008
How the New York Times failed to report on the crimes of the Bush administration
In the United States, reporters consider themselves Americans first, journalists second. That means consulting the government before going public with a state secret. â€œWhen I was at ABC,â€ James Bamford told Time in 2006, â€œwe always checked with the Administration in power when we thought we had something of concern, and there was usually some way to work it out.â€
In a new book about the Bush Administrationâ€™s efforts to expand the presidentâ€™s powers at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches, the assumption that the press shouldnâ€™t publish security-sensitive stories is so hard-wired that New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau accepts it as a given. But itâ€™s a very American concept, and one that relies on the presumption that the U.S. government may make mistakes, but is largely a force for good. In other countries, the relationship between rulers and the press is strictly adversarial.
In â€œBushâ€™s Law: The Remaking of American Justiceâ€ Lichtblau unwittingly relates a depressing parableâ€”his seeming obliviousness to conflict of interest is a bummerâ€”describing the nationâ€™s most prominent newspaperâ€™s willingness to keep secrets for government officials, who turn out to be (shocker alertÃ ) lying. Itâ€™s a cautionary tale about journalistic nationalism, one of many (Judith Miller, anyone?) in which the Times transformed itself into Bushâ€™s political slut.
A whore, at least, would have demanded money.
In 2004 Lichtblau and fellow Times reporter Jim Risen learned that the National Security Agency was spying domestically, on American citizens.
It was a big story. Or it would have been, had the newspaper chosen to run it when it learned of it.
Naturally, it triggered alarms in official Washington when another Times reporter called the NSA for comment. Soon the agencyâ€™s director, General Michael Hayden, was calling the Times, asking it to censor itself. â€œDonâ€™t run this story,â€ Administration honchos begged.
â€œThe Times,â€ Lichtblau says, â€œhad been through many contretemps in its long history over whether or not to publish newsworthy stories involving sensitive national security information and, despite the vitriolic charges from its critics, it was never a decision the paper made with reckless abandon. In more than a few cases, it has decided not to publish anything at all.â€
For over a year, Lichtblau explains in an apparent attempt to justify himself and his employer to conservative critics, Times editors and reporters met repeatedly with White House officials to ask them why they shouldnâ€™t spill the beans on the NSAâ€™s domestic spying operation. That the program was illegal was pretty obvious. (Congress acknowledged as much by later voting to retroactively legalize it.) So was the lameness of the governmentâ€™s argument against making the NSAâ€™s activities public.
Declaring the Bush Administration â€œunpersuasive,â€ Lichtblau said: â€œTo me, it was never clear what Osama bin Laden and his henchmen would learnâ€”confirming, reallyâ€”that the United States spy services were listening to them.â€ But the White House kept calling meetings, playing for time. Meanwhile, every morning, the Times came out without important news that its readers would care aboutâ€”that their phone calls and e-mails were being monitored.
â€œBush and ten senior advisors in the White House and the intelligence community would make personal pleas not to run the story in a series of meetings spanning 14 months, beginning in October of 2004 weeks before the presidential election,â€ Lichtblau says.
Weeks before the presidential election. Youâ€™d think the timing of the Administrationâ€™s pleas for self-censorship might have tipped off the Timesâ€™ editors that they were being used in order to ensure that Bush and the Republican Party won the election.
The Bush Administration, he argues, â€œhad not yet suffered the kind of crippling body blows to its credibility that it would [by late 2005].â€ Yeah, well, not really.
Remember, this was late 2004. The U.S. had invaded Iraq in March 2003, a year and a half earlier, but the WMDs had never turned up. The paperâ€™s own editorial page had been ranting on and on about the Administrationâ€™s perfidy. Credibility? What credibility? Besides, it wasnâ€™t as if Bush was the first First Fibber. All presidents are serial liars. So are their subordinates. Why would the Times, or anyone else, believe them about anything?
As I read on, I kept thinking about an exchange Iâ€™d had with a fellow American reporter in Afghanistan in 2001. â€œAre you going to the press conference?â€ he asked me. A local warlord, part of the incoming Karzai regime, was about to give an update on the battle for Kunduz. â€œWhat for?â€ I asked him. â€œTo get news,â€ he replied. â€œA press conference,â€ I shot back, â€œis the one place where youâ€™re guaranteed not to learn anything. It is a vacuum-packed, perfectly news-free zone.â€ I spent the morning at the bazaar interviewing refugees, figuring they had less reason to lie than the Afghan official.
Anyway, the internal debate over whether to run the NSA domestic surveillance story came to an end in December 2005. Lichtblau, Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman and executive editor Bill Keller went to the White House, where they met with Condi Rice, General Hayden and a few other characters whom, if thereâ€™s any justice, will soon be in prison. This was followed by another rendezvous between the Big Dog himself, George W. Bush, and Taubman, Keller, and publisher Arthur Sulzberger. (Despite the obvious conflict of interestâ€”readers who pay newspapers for the truth vs. government officials paid to lieâ€”thereâ€™s no evidence that they considered refusing these meetings.) Deciding that they had been played long enough, Sulzberger and his lieutenants green-lit the piece.
By then, of course, Bush had won a second term. To some extent, he owed his victory to the â€œliberalâ€ New York Times more than to Karl Rove. The Times, Extra! Magazine reported later, had also sat on another late-breaking â€œOctober Surpriseâ€ story that might have caused enough voters to change their minds to vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. That suspicious rectangular bulge in Bushâ€™s jacket during his debate with Kerry, a NASA scientist who is an expert on such things had told the Times, was indeed an electronic transmitter that allowed Bush to receive remote coaching from Rove or someone else.
â€œA Times journalist, who said that Times staffers were â€˜pretty upsetâ€™ about the killing of the story, claims the senior editors felt [it] was â€˜too closeâ€™ to the election to run such a piece,â€ reported Extra!.
The government doesnâ€™t tell the truth to reporters, even on â€œbackground.â€ Why shouldnâ€™t the media tell the truth to the American people?