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NYT Editor Bill Keller: Slayer of Straw Men; Inventor of Privileges

Tuesday, May 2, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Like most Americans, the Wall Street Journal’s editors have a low opinion of leakers passing top secret material to “reporters” who in fact act as fax machines to the front page.

New York Times’ editor Bill Keller responds to WSJ’s past criticism today, and the WSJ prints it.

Here is the heart of the Keller argument:

To believe that aggressive journalism is driven by liberal partisanship requires an awfully selective memory. (Ask Bill Clinton. Ask Congressman Mollohan.) The role of journalism on our side of the news/opinion divide, at least as we aspire to perform it, is not to be advocates for or against any president or any party or any cause. It is not to tell our readers what we think or what they should think, but to provide information and analysis that enables them to make up their own minds. We are sometimes too credulous, sometimes too cynical–in other words, we are human–but I think we get the balance right most of the time, and when we don’t we feel an obligation to correct it.

In addition to fair treatment in the news pages, presidents are entitled to a respectful and attentive hearing, particularly when they make claims based on the safety of the country. In the case of the eavesdropping story, President Bush and other figures in his administration were given abundant opportunities to explain why they felt our information should not be published. We considered the evidence presented to us, agonized over it, delayed publication because of it. In the end, their case did not stand up to the evidence our reporters amassed, and we judged that the responsible course was to publish what we knew and let readers assess it themselves. You are welcome to question that judgment, but you have presented no basis for challenging it, let alone for attributing it to bad faith or animus toward the president.

Reporting on ethical scandals surrounding one Democratic president and one Democratic Congressman provides an answer to the assertion that liberal partisans in top secret positions are leaking highly classified national security-endangering material in order to wound the president? That’s not an argument a high school debater would offer.

Then Keller tells us two things it is the reporter’s job not to do:

(1)”not to be advocates for or against any president or any party or any cause;”

(2)”not to tell our readers what we think or what they should think.”

Filler piffle, that.

Finally we get to the positive statement of the reporter’s job:

“to provide information and analysis that enables them [the readers] to make up their own minds.”

Unfortunately, however, since the stories at issue fail to name sources, the readers simply cannot make up their own minds becaue the identity of a leaker will tell us an enormous amount about his or her motive. It is rational, indeed necessary, for a reader to review Mary McCarthy’s history of partisan contributions, as well as her tenure on the Clinton White House staff, before evaluating the reliability of any story she leaks. Conversely, if a source is a Bush appointee with long GOP ties, the picture that emerged would be very different.

After failing to provide much more than “blah, blah, blah” journalism school bull session stuff, Keller gets down to his central assertion:

[P]residents are entitled to a respectful and attentive hearing, particularly when they make claims based on the safety of the country. In the case of the eavesdropping story, President Bush and other figures in his administration were given abundant opportunities to explain why they felt our information should not be published. We considered the evidence presented to us, agonized over it, delayed publication because of it. In the end, their case did not stand up to the evidence our reporters amassed, and we judged that the responsible course was to publish what we knew and let readers assess it themselves. You are welcome to question that judgment, but you have presented no basis for challenging it, let alone for attributing it to bad faith or animus toward the president.

This may be the most revealing paragraph Mr. Keller has ever penned.

First, contrary to Mr. Keller’s somewhat smarmy set-up, presdents are “entitled” to nothing. They aren’t owed a hearing, or respect, or anything else except the powers of their office. What a newspaper chooses to give presidents is a market-driven decision. The New York Times fancies itself as a responsible voice of elite opinion so it conducts itself in a certain way. That’s its choice. But it owes the president nothing.

It does owe, however, its customers and the country very distinct obligations.

It owes its customers accurate information. The Jayson Blair scandal and the many subsequent black eyes the paper has suffered over the past few years has damaged the Times’ brand, as has its ideological hot flashes that occur within its editorials and among its columnists. The past few days’ scandal at the Los Angeles Times involving Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer winner, is just the latest in a parade of MSM meltdowns that confirms the public’s low opinion of journalists, despite journalists’ very high opinion of their own talents and ethics.

Far more improtant, however, than the accurate information it owes its customers, MSM owes the country obediance to the laws. It may not cheat on it taxes. It may not use illegal aliens as labor. It must treat its employees in accordance with a variety of federal and state laws.

It may not participate in espionage against the United States.

Oh, that espionage business, that’s the problem isn’t it?

Espionage is not an “in the eye of the beholder” issue, and Powerline has posted extensively on the subject, including this post, and Powerline’s Scott Johnson has written on the subject for the WeeklyStandard.com. Gabriel Schoenfeld has penned “Has the New York Times Violated the Espionage Act?” for Commentary. Andrew McCarthy has a crucial overview that appropriately distinguishes between categories of leaks, and the scrutiny reporters/editors/papers whould be under depending upon the nature of the leak. In short, the serious commentators have begun to ask what is the limit for newspapers and has the Times crossed it?

Read Keller’s statement in the WSJ. He asserts by implication that the Times is not restrained by these laws:

In the case of the eavesdropping story, President Bush and other figures in his administration were given abundant opportunities to explain why they felt our information should not be published. We considered the evidence presented to us, agonized over it, delayed publication because of it. In the end, their case did not stand up to the evidence our reporters amassed, and we judged that the responsible course was to publish what we knew and let readers assess it themselves.

There is no law in Keller’s calculation. It doesn’t exist. Or if it exists, it doesn’t bind him, only mere mortals. He doesn’t even mention the statutes. He can only defend his position by refusing to recognize their jurisdiction over him and his paper. He diverts attention from this self-serving statement of the case by substituting internal deliberation for external law.

Now press skeptics who have read the law have come round and questions are being raised about the possible legal guilt of the New York Times in publishing material that injured the national security. Keller is not pleased that anyone dares raise such questions.

In an e-mail obtained by MediaBistro last week, Keller was much less ambiguous in his statement of journalistic preference:

“I’m not sure journalists fully appreciate the threat confronting us — The Times in the eavesdropping case, the Post for its CIA prison stories, and everyone else who has tried to look behind the war on terror. Maybe we’re suffering a bit of subpoena fatigue. Maybe some people are a little intimidated by the way the White House plays the soft-on-terror card.

“Whatever the reason, I worry that we’re not as worried as we should be. No president likes reporters sniffing after his secrets, but most come to realize that accountability is the price of power in our democracy. Some officials in this administration, and their more vociferous cheerleaders, seem to have a special animus towards reporters doing their jobs. There’s sometimes a vindictive tone in way they talk about dragging reporters before grand juries and in the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public’s business risk being branded traitors. I don’t know how far action will follow rhetoric, but some days it sounds like the administration is declaring war at home on the values they profess to be promoting abroad.”

Again, this is thin sophistry. The debate would be much more direct if Mr. Keller would answer a couple of questions with straightforward replies:

Does Mr. Keller believe the Times enjoys an exemption from laws of the United States as they pertain to classified information?

Prior to the publication of the NSA story, did Mr. Keller consult with the paper’s lawyers on this subject, and did he receive advice that the paper could indeed be prosecuted for publishing secret material that harmed the national security?

It is pretty difficult for Mr. Keller to argue that the exemption from the nation’s laws he relies upon exists when it has never been upheld in the nation’s history, and almost certainly his lawyers gave him answers consistent with the applicability of the laws to all Americans.

So he continues to bob and weave and hope that by scattering enough chaff the public will lose track of his assertion concerning the “above the law” position of the New York Times.

Presidents are not above the law, of course. But apparently one paper is.

UPDATE: I will devote today’s program to this subject. I just spoke with Bill Keller’s assistant who curtly informed me that Mr. Keller wouldn’t be able to be interviewed. I left my number. Perhaps he’ll be willing to be interviewed on air about the conclusions he believes to be obvious and defensible.

UPDATE: Tom Maguire is all over the demand by Lewis Libbey’s defense team for the MSM files that are crucial to their client’s defense. MSM is going to fight back, taking its “Two Rules of Law” (as in one for us, and one for everyone esle) to its necessary conclusion.)

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