Our View: Protecting freedom of the press
The White House’s recent attack on the New York Times continues a disturbing pattern that the Bush administration has used to try to erode the freedom of the press.
We’re not suggesting that the president doesn’t have the right to criticize a story he disagrees with. Rather, what’s sad is our suspicion that the White House — and by extension, others in government — have found that such criticism gains traction with the public, even when it is counter to the public’s interest.
The New York Times case is a classic example.
In a June 23 story, the Times reported on a classified government program to monitor banking transactions. The program was set up in 2001 and is run by the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department. The program gives the government access to millions of transactions involving trillions of dollars that are routed daily through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift.
The program has been used effectively to track the banking activity of suspected terrorists, something the president promised the government would do in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal ran similar stories on the same day as the New York Times. But it was the latter, no doubt because of the Times’ longtime liberal editorial stances, that attracted Bush’s specific wrath. Bush responded to the story by saying the Times put “the public’s right to know” over “someone’s right to live.”
Others chimed in. The Times was accused of treason. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has called for a criminal investigation of the Times, suggesting that Times Editor Bill Keller, Publisher Arthur Sulzberger and the reporters and editors who worked on the story engaged in espionage.
Of course, it is all political poppycock. The New York Times uncovered information about a secret government program that wasn’t really all that secret and wrote about it. Swift brags on its Web site that it has a long history of cooperating with authorities, and, given the administration’s often-stated goal of tracking terrorist’s financial records, it is hard to see how the Times’ story told the terrorists something they did not already know.
Rather, the story advanced perhaps the most pressing question our country faces — how many civil liberties should we forgo to fight the war on terrorism? Certainly, the Times’ story helps us, individually and collectively, determine that threshold.
But rather than answer that question, the debate instead is focused on whether the Times had the right to print the story at all. The White House has done this before — wrapped itself in the flag, accused anyone who doesn’t play ball its way of being unpatriotic and watched as a large segment of the public nodded in agreement.
The result of this tactic? Government secrecy is increased, and the public’s access to government is decreased. Consider:
An Associated Press survey in March showed that since 2001, there have been 1,023 state laws approved dealing with open records. More than 60 percent restricted access to such records, and just 27 percent increased access. A survey by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government showed that in 2004, federal agencies cited an exemption to deny a Freedom of Information Act request 22 percent more often than they did in 2000.
The Bush administration showed in the New York Times case that the administration thinks it should decide what the press can and can’t print. That’s a disturbing thought. But what’s even more disturbing is that so many are taking that argument so seriously.
We offer as a close something well worth considering — the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
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