That ‘WSJ’ Editorial — And Other Dangerous Assaults on the Press

By: Joe Strupp

Just when you thought the anti-press fervor of the Bush Administration and its supporters couldn’t get any more vicious — remember Bill Bennett’s pleading for jail for three Pultizer winners? — the past week and a half indicates a rising tide of media-bashing that appears unmatched in recent history.

Even more blatant and vituperative than the fallout from the Pentagon Papers or the early days of Watergate has been the reaction to the June 23 reports in three major newspapers that the administration had been involved in a secret bank records monitoring program. Since The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal revealed the program?s existence, the reaction has been just short of mob demands for a lynching.

And the New York Times has received an overwhelming majority of the attacks ? from threats of federal prosecution to demands that the paper lose its White House press credentials. Even more stinging has been the all-too-common accusation that such reports are a politically-motivated act by a liberal newspaper.

This is a tired act that not only misses the point but shows the willingness of the administration to duck a valid debate over its policies and offer a lame counterpunch because it knows it cannot defend its actions. Even more pathetic is the way the Wall Street Journal, which reported the same story at virtually the same time, not only ducked much of the angry reaction, but found a way to attack the Times itself in one of the most absurd editorials put to newsprint in recent years. John Harwood, the respected senior writer for the Journal, is the latest to rip the editorial, on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”

On Friday, the Journal?s editorial page editors wrote that ?We suspect that the Times has tried to use the Journal as its political heatshield precisely because it knows our editors have more credibility on these matters.? And later in the same piece, claimed, ?The problem with the Times is that millions of Americans no longer believe that its editors would make those calculations in anything close to good faith. We certainly don’t. On issue after issue, it has become clear that the Times believes the U.S. is not really at war, and in any case the Bush Administration lacks the legitimacy to wage it.?

The Journal also claimed that it was right to run the same story because it had not been asked to hold it and that the Times had it first. What logic is this? If a story is wrong to run then it is wrong to run. It appears that the Journal is the one shielding itself from criticism by pointing a finger at the Times with the childish ?he started it!? defense.

And even that does not hold water, when you consider that Journal Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib, who wrote an e-mail to E&P shortly after the story broke claiming that our description of the Times? story as a scoop was wrong.

?I was surprised to see your news story about the New York Times ?scoop? on the government program to monitor international bank transactions. As you could tell from the lead story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today, we had the same story,? Seib wrote in an e-mail on June 23, the day the stories appeared in print. ?Moreover, we posted it online early last evening, virtually at the same time the Times did. In sum, we and the Times were both chasing the story, and crossed the finish line at the same time–and well ahead of the Los Angeles Times, which posted its story well after ours went up.?

If that does not sound like the Journal — at least on the newsroom side — is claiming equal credit with the Times, I don?t know what is.

To top it off, Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot has ducked efforts by E&P and other news outlets to get some further explanation about his editorial and his claim that the Times deserved infiinitely more criticism than his own paper.

The current acceptance of a torch-bearing mob mentality is dangerous not only to the press but, more importantly, to a public that needs in-depth reporting at a time when the federal government is more secretive than ever, and more willing to trample over the public?s right to know. The way the Bush administration, and it supporters on the right, have managed to make this a debate about the press reporting rather than about the way they are digging into the private lives of Americans is both ingenious and scary.

Somehow, the growing right-wing yada yada yada in this country has managed to convince many people into thinking they cannot believe any politically-related reporting in the paper, despite the fact that such conservative nay-sayers are the ones whose biases are out in the open. If a Democrat happens to get elected in 2008, and carries out controversial policies anathema to the right, will these same critics still be demanding that the media back off?

This is indeed a frightening time for journalism outlets, especially those major papers involved in this controversial story. If angry attacks on the press are allowed to snowball into demands for prosecution and name-calling, the frenzy against journalists will no doubt reach a level where the average reader will not know whom to trust even a little.

Then, not only will editors be rightly afraid to publish anything that questions the federal government, but secretive and invasive actions by our leaders ? either Democrat or Republican ? will go unnoticed, and worse, unquestioned. By then it will be too late.

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