Is ‘The Times’ trying to undermine war effort?
No; it just looks like it
By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
LAST WEEK our editorial board discussed the controversy surrounding The New York Times’ latest disclosure of secret U.S. intelligence operations.
(“Controversy” may be too mild a word. “Treason” is bandied about with regularity, and hanging has been mentioned.)
A colleague said that people who think this is about the Times being anti-Bush or anti-American don’t understand the role of the media: “There’s always been that tension.”
No, I said. Just because it’s been there our whole careers doesn’t mean that it was always thus. And just because readers don’t like a newspaper’s attitude toward the government doesn’t mean that they don’t understand it. They just don’t like it.
They would prefer to see the Times cover war the way it did 60 years ago. On June 7, 1944, its lead story began as follows:
“The German Atlantic Wall has been breached.
“Thousands of American, Canadian and British soldiers, under cover of the greatest air and sea bombardment of history, have broken through the ‘impregnable’ perimeter of Germany’s ‘European fortress’ in the first phase of the invasion and liberation of the Continent.”
Two days earlier, it had reported that Americans had “captured Rome tonight, liberating for the first time a German-enslaved European capital….” On Dec. 9, 1941, it had related that the president had “denounced Japanese aggression in ringing tones.”
Note all those value-loaded words. You’ll also find that Germans are “Nazis” or “the foe.” Allied nations are referred to as “us,” rather than in the third person.
Today, terrorists are “insurgents,” and the only “ringing tones” most journalists hear are the ones they program into their mobile phones. Taking sides is seen as not only unprofessional, but unethical.
In some ways, this is healthy. In others, it is excessive. If D-Day occurred today, we would hear that morning on television how hopeless the situation appeared on Omaha Beach. This would be repeated, sliced, diced, analyzed and reacted to for hours before we learned that a few Americans had climbed the cliff and established a tentative foothold.
We would soon learn how completely our bombers had failed in their critical mission of cratering the German defenses, leading to hundreds of American deaths at Omaha. We’d know that intelligence had been so lame that no one had anticipated how hard it would be to attack through Norman hedgerows, and that American paratroopers had been dropped everywhere except where they were supposed to be, often without weapons or ammunition.
All of which would be true. And demoralizing.
So am I saying The New York Times and other media (including the defunct Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, which took pride in its critical investigations of the Iraq war) are trying to undermine our war effort?
No. It just looks like it.
This can put the media at odds with more traditional folks who would like to see a little buy-in on the part of the Fourth Estate when American lives are on the line.
I don’t believe the Times editors had malicious motives. But I do think they went too far in their watchdog role when they revealed details of how we track financial transactions in the pursuit of terrorists.
When did this big shift in journalistic attitudes occur? After Watergate. I recently saw “All the President’s Men” for the first time in three decades. When I got to the scenes in which several of The Washington Post’s editors say they think the paper is going overboard, that there’s no way the White House would be involved in such doings, I had to pause the DVD to explain to my kids how different things were then. They’ve grown up in a world in which such charges are routinely leveled, and immediately believed. The idea that the opposition will stoop to anything is the starting point of political discourse today.
Journalists are products of their times as much now as in the past. Today, people who hold high security clearances are prone to tell tales with impunity, and then what does an editor do (especially when you know that if you don’t run it, some blog will)?
Which is more arrogant in an editor: Telling the readers everything you know, or deciding you won’t tell them certain things? Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet recently co-wrote a column in which they disclosed that “each of us, in the past few years, has had the experience of withholding or delaying articles when the administration convinced us that the risk of publication outweighed the benefits.”
Oh, yeah? Well who are you to decide that I don’t need to know something?
Well, they’re the editors, which is probably a more satisfactory answer to me than to you. Under our Constitution, no one but an editor can decide what a newspaper prints or doesn’t print. It’s kind of like democracy — as messy as it is, I wouldn’t want to live under any other kind of system. But with such sweeping rights come a huge responsibility. The editors said they understood that:
“We understand that honorable people may disagree with any of these choices — to publish or not to publish. But making those decisions is the responsibility that falls to editors, a corollary to the great gift of our independence. It is not a responsibility we take lightly. And it is not one we can surrender to the government.”
I agree. In our free society, editors must make those decisions. But there is little doubt that in the country in which I have worked as a journalist, editors make very different decisions — based on very different criteria — from those made by editors in the country my parents grew up in.
The question is, are we better off now? Sometimes I doubt it.