Hanging Tough  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2006

Hanging Tough   

It’s crucial for the news media to stay resolute in the face of attacks from the Bush administration. Posted July 10, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Or maybe it should be bully rather than fool.

After 9/11, the Bush administration did a superb job of quelling dissent. It vigorously enforced the notion that questioning its anti-terrorism policies was simply unpatriotic behavior.

And, sadly, the tactic worked. The U.S. news media retreated from their skeptical, not to say confrontational, approach to the federal government. And the results weren't pretty. One byproduct was the credulous coverage of the administration's case for going to war in Iraq.

Here they go again.

In recent weeks we've been treated to a drumbeat of criticism of the press for breaking stories about the administration's secret programs launched as part of the war on terror.

The proximate cause of the latest flurry was the story about the monitoring of bank records maintained by SWIFT, a Belgian-based financial clearinghouse. While the New York Times has born the brunt of the administration's ire, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times ran similar stories at roughly the same time.

"Disgraceful," President Bush thundered. "Treasonous," echoed Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. And huffed Vice President Dick Cheney, "Some in the press, in particular the New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."

Similar outcries followed the earlier disclosures of the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program and the CIA's secret prison network.

Some of the rhetoric seems a bit disingenuous. It's hardly a secret that the administration is aggressively tracking the terrorists' money, given the fact that it has loudly trumpeted that it's doing so.

What's involved here is in part the old Nixon administration tactic of trying to score political points by using the press as a piñata. Whether that's a winner for an administration with anemic poll numbers and a quagmire in Iraq is a good question. But the broader goal is to get the press to back off.

This is an administration that isn't too crazy about sharing information, never mind scrutiny. The operating philosophy is, trust me. Even a Republican ally, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was so offended by the Bush crowd's penchant for secrecy that he wrote a letter to the president expressing his dismay.

All of which makes the vigilance of the news media more important than ever.

Contrary to the critics' diatribes, U.S. news organizations handle stories about such classified programs very carefully, and they take requests to withhold information quite seriously.

The New York Times held its NSA eavesdropping story for a year — a year — so it could do more reporting given the administration's red flags. The Washington Post withheld the names of the countries hosting the secret prisons when officials said identifying them could cause problems — and the Post took serious flak for doing so.

When I was at the Post in the 1980s, we repeatedly held a story about an eavesdropping operation that had been compromised by the spy Ronald Pelton, because of objections raised by the NSA. The story eventually ran; I mention it simply to suggest that such pieces hardly receive cavalier treatment.

So now it's crunch time once again for the media. The gauntlet has been thrown. Will news organizations back off or continue to do the aggressive, tough-minded reporting so important to a democracy?

It had better be option B. The consequences of doing anything else will be enormous.

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