Celebrating Media Independence

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday July 04, 2006

OK, the basics on the flap: the New York Times discovered that the administration has been trying to figure out how suspected terrorists move their money around, running something called the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. The title may be just wishful thinking, but the fact is that government snoops have been looking into all kinds of banking transactions, which might include yours and mine, in their attempt to find something fishy. After a reasonable amount of checking facts followed by a large dose of introspection, the Times printed the story. Whammo! The Republicans in Congress, egged on by the right flank of the Blogsville flamers, came down on them like a ton of bricks. On Thursday the House passed a resolution condemning news organizations for outing the program because it had “placed the lives of Americans in danger.” The vote was 227-183, along party lines for the most part. Some Republicans started hollering treason. Clearly, as Nancy Pelosi charged, the Repugs are trying to turn this one into a campaign issue. 

What is a bit more surprising is that the relatively sober Wall Street Journal joined the chorus on its editorial page, in fact all over its editorial page. An unsigned and almost unreadable full-page editorial essay lambasted the Times for running such a story “in wartime.” Granted, the editorial page of the WSJ is famously silly, just as famous for being clueless as its news pages are respected for being incisive and intelligent. One casualty of this tale is the reputation of Journal reporter Glenn Simpson, who was working on the same story that the Times broke, but who was burdened with an embargoed government disclosure of selected facts about the program which represented administration attempts to spin the Times version. The Journal’s editorial patted itself on the back for dutifully withholding publication until the powers-that-be came up with the official story and gave the go-ahead for its publication.  

The next chapter of the tale was on Saturday, when Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, published a joint editorial (unusual and perhaps unprecedented) explaining that their papers (the L.A. Times also carried the story) really were responsible corporate citizens who knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em when national security was on the line. The New York paper, which had previously taken heat from the left for holding back a story about government surveillance of phone systems for almost a year, clearly thinks it’s found the golden mean for such situations. 

The corporate press unfortunately more often chooses to go along to get along—to embargo stories that might annoy someone until a convenient time, and not just on heavy-duty matters of national security. Here at our little paper we are sometimes amazed at the stories we print that other papers must be deliberately holding back.  

A couple of summers ago our reporter Richard Brenneman found out that developer Jim Levine, with the assistance of a passel of folks inside and outside government, was planning a big casino development at Point Molate. Levine asked him to hold the story until a future date, but he (and the paper) declined to wait, and the story came out early. Not a word of it appeared in other papers in the area, however, until the appointed date for Levine’s announcement, though their reporters had every chance to find out what was in the works, by reading the Planet among other ways. Recently our reporter J. Douglas Allen-Taylor got wind of plans to sell off buildings belonging to the Oakland school district, which he documented in these pages. Other media waited for the official announcement, and then simply reported what was in the official press release, even though by that time outraged critics had become vocal and easily found.  

So why are we all gathered here together today talking about this? Well, a friend, an experienced journalist, strongly suggested that the Berkeley Daily Planet ought to take a stand on the side of the press’s responsibility to tell the truth in a timely way when something the public needs to know comes to light. His plea was made even weightier by his suggestion that after all, this is the Fourth of July issue. He’s a naturalized citizen, which is possibly why he takes the idea that a free and independent press is a cornerstone of true patriotism more seriously than many who are currently holding down corporate editorial jobs. It might sound like a corny, old-fashioned notion, but we’re sticking with it. 

The good news is that suggestions by Dick Cheney and New York congressman Peter King that journalists should be jailed for publishing the story has already goaded papers all over the country into responding. “Beating the Press Hurts Democracy” is the headline on a Madison, Wisconsin, State Journal editorial, and similar sentiments can be found on the Internet from places as diverse as Enid, Oklahoma, and Augusta, Georgia. The smug, deferential Wall Street Journal editorial has gotten its share of criticism in the process. 

The bad news is that even when the press blows the trumpet like Joshua in the biblical Battle of Jericho, most of the time the walls don’t “come tumbling down,” as they did in the Bible story. We’ve had a year or more of revelation upon revelation on the national scene, but atrocity continues to be piled upon atrocity. Last month’s story about U.S. military personnel gratuitously killing unarmed villagers is followed by yesterday’s story of U.S. soldiers raping an Iraqi girl and slaughtering her whole family to cover it up. Every week brings a new tale of a different shadowy sinister person within the Bush administration who is determined to destroy cherished American freedoms—this week’s New Yorker has a chilling profile of some guy named Addison in Cheney’s office who is single-handedly re-inventing the imperial presidency or perhaps has re-discovered fascism itself. 

But how we as citizens can take the process from exposure of government misdeeds to stopping them is a whole new topic which must be for another day. Today, Independence Day, we should just take the time, between the barbecues and the fireworks, to appreciate the fact that we’ve still got a relatively free press which can help out with the job if it continues to do its own job as it should.