Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Pay No Attention to the Incompetents Behind the Curtain

Not content with their assaults on the Fourth Amendment, the Bush administration has ratcheted up their attacks on the First. The idea that a newspaper can only print what the government allows it to is fascist and antithetical to the founding principles of America. Yet frighteningly, this idea is no longer solely the fringe belief it should always remain. It is being trumpeted by many prominent conservative voices, who seem to be jockeying to see who can demonstrate the most rabid zeal for rooting out those traitors in the press.

I touched on some of this in a recent post on recent revelations about the global banking surveillance program. But make no mistake. This is:

1) An outright assault on the First Amendment.
2) An intimidation move that attempts to silence administration critics.
3) An attempt not only to win a single argument, but rather to hijack the very means for making an argument.
4) A further attempt to remove all oversight of the Executive Branch.
5) A further attempt to deny the American public (and Congress!) meaningful knowledge of what the government is doing.
6) An attempt to shift the national conversation from subjects such as Iraq by focusing ire on that familiar conservative villain, the media.
7) An attempt to distract from the staggering incompetence of the folks behind the curtain, the Bush administration.

Several excellent articles and posts delve into these issues. To be charitable, it’s a respectable position to hold that The New York Times and other papers were irresponsible to reveal the global banking surveillance program. But as Dan Froomkin observes, "It's a monstrous charge for the White House to suggest that the press is essentially aiding and abetting the enemy." I have yet to hear any conservative critic say anything approaching, “I will defend to the death The New York Times’ right to print this story or any story, but I feel they were irresponsible to do so in this case.” It’s also no surprise (as I noted in the earlier post) that all the conservatives are bashing The New York Times but not The Wall Street Journal for its coverage of the same program.

Conservative tooth-gnashing notwithstanding, there was a pressing need to report this story. Although the program's been in place since 2001, the Bush administration only briefed key members of Congress after it knew the story was going to break. Yet again, the Bush administration sought to circumvent the oversight of the legislative and judicial branches. And upholding their usual pattern, the Bush administration only did the right thing reluctantly, when forced to at gunpoint. (Considering Republicans control all three branches of government, and Congress has been little more than a rubber stamp for the Bush administration, it really says something that most of the time they don’t even trust their own party to agree with their actions!) Times Executive Editor Bill Keller did a good job overall explaining the paper’s reasons for making the difficult decision to publish.

The uniformity of the conservative response — essentially, “Traitors! Prosecute them!” — leaves little doubt that this assault is coordinated through the latest round of GOP talking points. Such furor is also meant to distract from an obvious question – why the hell is Congress yet again only learning of this because of newspapers?

And why is there such a mad rush from anyone to trust anything the Bush administration says or does, especially after they’ve repeatedly lied? For Republican politicians, of course there’s a strong impulse to retain political power. But in a good post Arthur Silber examines a deeper psychology at work:

...People exhibit one of two basic perspectives toward government (including a particular administration that holds power), and toward authority in general...

...One group, composed of people some might consider skeptics but whom I regard as realists, consistently questions and challenges any concentration of power...

...The second group is made up of people who are eager to let others make the decisions that shape their lives.

Silber also dissects an asinine article by Michael Barone. Silber eviscerates Barone’s tone, technique, and assumptions, most notably his ludicrous claim that The New York Times hates America. Meanwhile, blogger BooMan also dissects Barone, but specifically takes on his premise that terrorists “hate our freedom,” when in fact they hate our foreign policy.

We should be able to expect better from Barone, who’s worked as a legitimate journalist. It’s less of a surprise from a third-rate conservative radio talk show host like Houston’s Chris Baker, who’s absolutely schooled here by San Francisco radio host Bernie Ward (this Crooks & Liars clip has quickly become a favorite in the liberal blogosphere). Typical of his ilk, Baker cannot handle a fair discussion in a venue where he’s not in control, and storms off after being unable to answer Ward’s persistent, central question: Should the government be able to tell newspapers what to publish?

In ”Over the Top Times-Bashing” Howard Kurtz remarks, “Man, I have never seen this kind of Times-bashing before. “ Kurtz offers a good round-up of the conservative rancor (he’s yet to uncover much of the liberal response, but it’s early in the week yet). He also observes:

Some of the outside commentary is so over the top that I think those folks would repeal the First Amendment tomorrow if they could. And most of those proclaiming horror at the leaking of classified info were willing to give the White House a pass for the outing of the covert Valerie Plame.

The most extreme conservatives want to see The New York Times prosecuted under espionage statutes.

As usual, Dan Froomkin zeros in on the most salient points of this entire story:

Terrorists already knew the government was trying to track them down through their finances, their phone calls and their e-mails. Within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, Bush publicly declared open season on terrorist financing.

As far as I can tell, all these disclosures do is alert the American public to the fact that all this stuff is going on without the requisite oversight, checks and balances.

How does it possibly matter to a terrorist whether the government got a court order or not? Or whether Congress was able to exercise any oversight? The White House won't say. In fact, it can't say.

By contrast, it does matter to us.

This column has documented, again and again, that when faced with a potentially damaging political problem, White House strategist Karl Rove's response is not to defend, but to attack.

The potentially damaging political problem here is that the evidence continues to grow that the Bush White House's exercise of unchecked authority in the war on terror poses a serious threat to American civil liberties and privacy rights. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that an American president used the mechanisms of national security to spy on his political enemies.

The sum total of the administration's defense against this charge appears to be: Trust us. Trust that we're only spying on terrorists, and not anyone else.

But what if the trust isn't there? And what if they're breaking the law?

That's why it's better to attack. It makes for great soundbites. It motivates the base. And perhaps most significantly, it takes attention away from Bush's own behavior.

Glenn Greenwald does his usual scholarly, thorough job to absolutely demolish every conservative complaint. In his piece "The Bush lynch mob against the nation's free press," he establishes four key points:

(1) There is not a single sentence in the Times banking report that could even arguably "help the terrorists."

(2) The reason there is "no evidence of abuse" is precisely because the administration exercises these powers in total secrecy.

(3) The Founders unequivocally opted for excess disclosures by the media over excess government secrecy and restraints on the press.

(4) How can any rational person believe that the reporters and editors of The New York Times want to help terrorists attack the U.S.?

Always good for a quip, James Wolcott observes:

It'll be interesting to see if the controversy builds or fades over the next few days, and whether or not the Times-bashers will be compelled to call their own bluff. In the meantime, whatever one thinks of the Times's performance leading up to Iraq and the Judith Miller debacle, the ugly threatmongering and barking ("For the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous”) of Peter King shouldn't go unchallenged. Let him climb the Empire State Building if he wants to work off steam.

In an update, Wolcott also notes his prediction about the "Fox All-Stars" came true: "Fox News All Star and full-time schmendrick Mort Kondracke said, more in anger than sorrow, "I think they [The New York Times] has forgotten that New York is the place 9/11 happened." Only a Beltway coward could be that obtuse."

And of course there’s a double standard. IOKIYAR: “It’s Okay If You’re a Republican.” Jane Hamsher, back blogging atFiredoglake, has a fiery post about how the same conservatives screaming bloody murder about the Times benefit from the same freedom they wish to strip from others, and how really, this tone is nothing new:

They have consistently preached authoritarian cultism; their hostility to any kind of check or balance that would impede Bush’s assertion of the unitary executive has always existed at a fever pitch. One wonders if they’ve ever read the Constitution.

But much like the profound irony of Ole 60 Grit O’Beirne demanding rights for herself won on her behalf by the feminists she bashes even as she earns her living denying them to other women, so the NRO exists as part of a free press it would very much like to see dismantled.

It makes me wonder if someone's going to propose loyalty oaths next!

Some of the most rabid responses are predictably from the National Review online and Powerline. They’re quoted and linked in the pieces above, and deserve a look. However, I did want to touch briefly on Glenn Reynolds’ broadside. Kurtz reminds us that “Instapundit” Reynolds is a law professor, but I’m not sure how that is relevant to Reynolds’ argument, except perhaps to highlight that those in higher education may still produce ludicrous opinions. I found his argument to be among the least convincing and most disingenuous I read from the right, all the more so because he purports to be both a political moderate and a serious writer. Rather than spewing raw hatred towards the Times (although he does heap great disdain on them), he attempts to invoke deeper principles of the First Amendment, but falls badly off the mark. (Certainly he shows no knowledge of Jefferson’s views on freedom of the press, or deliberately ignores them.)

In an impressive act of projection, Reynolds leads with “BILL KELLER ISN'T VERY BRIGHT, or else he thinks you aren't.” Reynolds' central argument is that “The founders gave freedom of the press to the people, they didn't give freedom to the press.” He also complains (as does virtually everyone in the Republican echo chamber) of Keller’s “hubris” and arrogance. It boggles the mind that Reynolds does not view the Bush administration in the same way, and his selective scorn is telling.

I could dissect Reynolds' post at length, but Roy at Alicublog hits the key point nicely:

I may just be missing whatever point the Perfesser's trying to make. Is he trying to say that reporters are not in fact "people"? Or maybe he thinks newsmen have fewer, or less inclusive, First Amendment rights than reg'lar folks.

Because, otherwise, it doesn't matter if Bill Keller and all the Times staff walk around in ermine capes and call each other Majesty. They and we either have the right or they/we don't. There are no shitty-attitude exemptions in the Bill of Rights.

This guy is a law professor. Think about that.

While many factors are at play in this story, my take is that there are three key ones. One is that conservatives are waging a sustained war against the First Amendment and "Freedom of the Press." The second is that fighting oversight and accountability is not sufficient for this administration; they wish to silence all serious public discussion of their actions as well. The third is that, while this censorship effort is very real and dangerous, its immediate goal is to distract the media and the general populace from other issues, most notably Iraq. The incompetence of the Bush administration is hard to ignore, so conservative critics are eager to try to change the storyline with attacks on those demon liberals. It's up to persons of conscience to keep the light shining on these scurrilous gambits.

(The fantastic graphic at the top of this entry comes from the wonderful Propaganda Remix Project. This particular poster is one of my favorites from them. Interestingly, Michelle Malkin’s readers have done some (mostly crude) photoshop work on the Remix material for their own purposes. Glenn Greewald’s post provides the links.)


Craig A. Cunningham said...

never saw a journalist look quite like that. they're usually too frumpled.

Batocchio said...

Craig, a good point! But I think you may be confusing "journalist" with "newsmodel."
At Fox News and other outlets, they cultivate just such a look.

thepoetryman said...


Nice read!

Yes. The difference between a journalist and a news model is the difference between a disciplined, principled artist and a deceitful disciple!

thepoetryman said...

Happy 4th, my friend!