Top Reporters Respond to Press Critics

By: E&P Staff

A classic discussion, sometimes debate, on press freedom transpired on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” with Andrea Mitchell pinch-hosting for Tim Russert.

One lengthy segment featured Dana Priest of The Washington Post, John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal, William Safire, formerly of The New York Times (and the Nixon administration), and Bill Bennett, the former Reagan official and arch-critic of the press for printing stories about secret Bush administration surveillance programs over the past few months.

At one point, even E&P got involved, as a Bennett quote from this magazine was thrown up on the screen–the one where he said reporters from the Post and Times (including Dana Priest) should be thrown in jail for printing secrets.

Priest slyly commented with a reference to casino gambling–Bennett has famously admitted to a gambling problem.

Here are a few excerpts.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Bill, does the press have an obligation to print or not in this case? And were they giving away state secrets?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Look, I don?t speak for the Times. I?ve been in the Times for 30 years disagreeing with Times editorial policy right down the line. On this one, I think they did the right thing. 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.

JOHN HARWOOD: This is what I don?t get. The people who killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, who murdered Danny Pearl, my colleague at The Wall Street Journal, commit atrocities every day in Iraq, are evil, but they?re not stupid, and I don?t understand the logic that says all of a sudden they?ve discovered something they didn?t know. September 24, 2001, President Bush walked into the Rose Garden and announced, ?We?ve developed a strategy, we?re putting banks and financial institutions around the world on, on notice. We?ll work with their governments, freeze or block terrorists? money. We?re going to work with the United Nations, the EU, the G8 to follow this money.? How…

MITCHELL: But, John, what Bill Bennett would say to you is that they didn?t know about the so-called SWIFT program, they didn?t know the specifics.

HARWOOD: Well, what did we think? Didn’t they say ?We?re looking for money??….

DANA PRIEST: Every time there?s a national security story they don?t want published, they say it will damage national security. But they?for one thing, they?ve never given us any proof. They say it will stop cooperation, but the fact is that the countries of the world understand that they have to cooperate on counterterrorism. And just like the banks that did not pull out of the system, other countries continue to cooperate, because it?s a common problem.

MITCHELL: Dana, let me point out that The Washington Post, your newspaper, was behind the others but also did publish this story. And a story you wrote last year disclosing the secret CIA prisons won the Pulitzer Prize, but it also led to William Bennett, sitting here, saying that three reporters [quote from E&P comes up] who won the Pulitzer Prize?you for that story and Jim Risen and others for another story?were, ?not worthy of an award but rather worthy of jail.? Dana, how do you plead?

PRIEST: Well, it?s not a crime to publish classified information. And this is one of the things Mr. Bennett keeps telling people that it is. But, in fact, there are some narrow categories of information you can?t publish, certain signals, communications, intelligence, the names of covert operatives and nuclear secrets.

Now why isn?t it a crime? I mean, some people would like to make casino gambling a crime, but it is not a crime. Why isn?t it not a crime? Because the framers of the Constitution wanted to protect the press so that they could perform a basic role in government oversight, and you can?t do that. Look at the criticism that the press got after Iraq that we did not do our job on WMD. And that was all in a classified arena. To do a better job?and I believe that we should?ve done a better job?we would?ve again, found ourselves in the arena of…

MITCHELL: John, is this policy of trying to use the press as a whipping boy going to work to excite the conservative base and to turn voters out in the midterm elections?

HARWOOD: Well, Republicans certainly think so. They?if you?re a Republican in the White House or in Congress, would you rather talk about immigration, gas prices, the estate tax, all the things that you can?t get done right now, or would you rather go after The New York Times, the Supreme Court on the Guantanamo ruling?we?ll talk about that later?and make hay and say ?They?re tying our hands in the war on terrorism?? It?s obvious they?d rather do the latter, and they love this discussion. They?re going to love it even more if Congress takes up legislation on Guantanamo….

PRIEST: Still, the point is the tension between the media and the government is long-standing. And that?s to be expected. And in fact, all these?many of the people getting up to lambaste the media now are also people that we talk to with our stories, to vet our stories, to say, ?What is it in this story that you?re most concerned about??

MITCHELL: You mean, to hold things back?

PRIEST: To hold things back. In the prison story, we talked with the administration. No one in the administration asked us not to publish the story. In fact, people said, ?We know you have your job to do, but please don?t publish the names of the countries where the prisons are located.? So there is a reasoned dialogue that often goes on between the media and the government behind, behind all this….

BENNETT: All right, now you?ve got, you?ve got, you?ve got three people on one side, you?ve got me on the other side. Let me just, let me just state my position.

It?s not time to break out the champagne and the Pulitzers. This is not about politics, not from my perspective. It?s about the United States of America and the security of the United States of America. The difference is, the government was elected. People may not like the Bush administration, but they were elected and they are entitled to due consideration on these matters. The American people, in fact, believe in a free press, as I do, and I don?t believe in prior restraint of the press.

But the American people are saying, if you listen to them in very, very large and consistent numbers?and an awful lot of people across the board are saying this?is four times now, four times in eight months, Dana Priest?s story, the National Surveillance Security Agency monitoring story, the USA Today story about data mining. ?Oh, sorry,? they tell us on Friday, ?We maybe got that wrong. Our sources were wrong.?….

PRIEST: You know, I heartily appreciate your talking on behalf of all the American people because when…

BENNETT: …it?s?it?s not?I?m not. I?m talking about a lot of the American?wait, let me finish. Let me finish.

PRIEST: …my stories ran I received several?many, many people thanking me because they thought that they went?including…

BENNETT: You don?t want to be?you don?t, you don?t want to put this to an opinion poll?

PRIEST: …including four-star…

BENNETT: You do not want to do this on an opinion poll.

PRIEST: …including active-duty four-star generals. Some people think that the administration has gone too far in some of the counterterrorism measures they?ve taken, and that some of the things that we were?are revealing are creating a debate that could not have happened before….

MITCHELL: Bill Safire, weigh in here.

SAFIRE: Let me respond to what Bill, to the point he?s making, that who elected the media to determine what should be secret and what should not?

MITCHELL: Which is the fundamental point.

SAFIRE: Right. And the answer to that is, the founding fathers did. They came up with this Bill of Rights beyond which the constitutional convention would not move unless there were a First Amendment to challenge the government…


SAFIRE: …just as the American founding fathers challenged the British government. Now it?s not treasonable, it?s not even wrong for the press to say we?re going to find out what we can and we?ll act as a check and balance on the government. Sometimes we?ll make mistakes. Sometimes the government will make mistakes….

HARWOOD: I?m going to agree with Bill Bennett for one moment. I believe that public opinion is much closer to Bennett on this point than some of the other members of the press in the discussion. After Dana wrote her story about secret prisons we asked in our Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, ?Do you think the administration has gone too far in handling terror suspects overseas, or is it taking the right approach?? Fifty-five to 30 the American people said they?ve taken the right approach.

MITCHELL: But the press is never popular, and most notably now.

HARWOOD: Exactly so, and the American people are not overly concerned at this moment about the finest points of civil liberties on this. Secondly, I accept that Bill Bennett is not motivated by politics in his views on this. However, when you talk privately to Republicans on the Hill, why did we have a debate for a couple of days on the Hill about this resolution that had no force of law whatsoever about The New York Times? They?ll tell you it was politics. They love having this discussion. They want it to go on as long as possible.

BENNETT: Well, we?re still talking about basic right and wrong here. And is there any question that people?I think I?m the only one here who signed a nondisclosure agreement when I was?when I was director of national drug control policy, maybe some of you have?it?s a pretty serious matter. People who signed those agreements in government have violated the law, they have violated their oath, they have done so by talking to Dana Priest, talking to Risen and talking to Lichtblau.

We need to get after those people, and one way to get after those people is to talk to the reporters who?with whom they spoke.

SAFIRE: Oh, you?re saying ?get after them.? That means threatening reporters, and threaten them with contempt and put them in jail.

BENNETT: Absolutely, absolutely.

SAFIRE: And that?s wrong.

BENNETT: Why is that wrong, Bill? Why are they above the law?

HARWOOD: Because it?s a big step toward tyranny, which is what we?re supposed to be withholding….

MITCHELL: Let me, let me show you a Wall Street Journal editorial?a very unusual editorial?that was in the paper on Friday. It said that ?The problem with The New York 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.? John, I don?t want to really put you on the spot here, but I am. Your paper?s news columns also ran this story, and here you have this editorial. It really is a really sharp conflict.

HARWOOD: Couple of points on that. First of all, that editorial wasn?t kidding when they said there?s a separation between the news and the editorial pages at The Wall Street Journal.

Secondly, there is a very large gap between the ideological outlook and philosophy of The New York Times editorial page and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. There is not a large ideological gap between the news staffs of those two places, and why would there be? Some of the top people of The New York Times were hired from The Wall Street Journal. What I found shocking about the editorial was the assertion that The New York Times did not act in good faith in making that judgment. I don?t know anybody on the news staff of The Wall Street Journal that believes that. I certainly don?t.

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