By: E&P Staff
As shown by earlier comments by its top editor and its publisher, The New York Times’ leadership was not amused by the recent Wall Street Journal editorial that slammed the paper for publishing its bank records surveillance story (even though the Journal ran much the same story itself). But now columnist Frank Rich, in his Sunday piece, really lets the Journal — and the White House it defended — have it with both barrels.
Rich speculates that the administration’s latest harsh words for the media are part of a new “insidious game plan,” imanufacturing, then milking controversy “to reboot its intimidation of the press, hoping journalists will pull punches in an election year. …
“Will this plan work?” he asks. “It did after 9/11. The chilling words articulated at the get-go by Ari Fleischer (Americans must ‘watch what they say’) carried over to the run-up to the Iraq war, when the administration’s W.M.D. claims went unchallenged by most news organizations.
“That this strategy may work again can be seen in the fascinating escalation in tactics by the Bush White House’s most powerful not-so-secret agent in the press itself, the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Journal is not Fox News or an idle blogger or radio bloviator. It’s the establishment voice of the party in power. The infamous editorial it ran on June 30 (‘Fit and Unfit to Print’), an instant classic, doesn’t just confer its imprimatur on the administration’s latest crusade to conflate aggressive journalism with treason, but also ups the ante.
“The editorial was ostensibly a frontal attack on The Times, accusing its editors of not believing America is ‘really at war’ and of exercising bad faith in running its report on the Swift operation. But an attack on The Times by The Journal’s editorial page is a shrug-inducing dog-bites-man story; the paper’s conservative editorialists have long dueled with a rival whose editorials usually argue the other side. (And sometimes the Times opinion writers gleefully return the fire.) What was groundbreaking and unsettling about the Journal editorial was that it besmirched the separately run news operation of The Journal itself. “
Rich observed that “The Journal’s journalists were doing their job with their usual professionalism. But by twisting this history, the Journal editorial page was sending an unsubtle shot across the bow, warning those in the newsroom (and every other newsroom) that their patriotism would be impugned, as The Times’s had been, if they investigated administration conduct in wartime in ways that displeased the White House.
“Any fan of The Journal’s news operation expects it to stand up to this bullying. But the nastiness of the Journal editorial is a preview of what we can expect from the administration and all of its surrogates this year.
“The trouble is we have plenty to worry about. For all the airy talk about the First Amendment, civil liberties and Thomas Jefferson in the debate over the Swift story and the National Security Agency surveillance story before it, there’s an urgent practical matter at stake, too. Now more than ever, after years of false reports of missions accomplished, the voters need to do what Congress has failed to do and hold those who mismanage America’s ever-expanding war accountable for their performance in real time. …
“We can believe that reporters, rather than terrorists, are the villains. We can debate whether traitorous editors should be sent to gas chambers or merely tarred and feathered.
“Or we can hope that the press will rise to the occasion and bring Americans more news we can use, not less, at a perilous time when every piece of information counts.”
The full column can be found, via TimesSelect, at www.nytimes.com.