"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep theThe other day Paul Krugman discussed the right wings war on the New York Times and today it's Frank Rich's turn, All the News That's Fit to Bully. Rich correctly tells us that there was no possibility that the Times would or could be prosecuted, after all they didn't tell us anything the administration hadn't already bragged about. No that's not what it was all about.
populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety)
by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins,
all[most] of them imaginary."
~ H. L. Mencken, "Women as Outlaws"
But the third and most important explanation has nothing to do with the facts of the case or the law and everything to do with politics. For all the lynch mob's efforts to single out The Times - "It's the old trick, go after New York, go after big, ethnic New York," as Chris Matthews put it - three papers broke Swift stories on their front pages. Even in this bash-the-press environment, the last spectacle needed by a president with an approval rating in the 30's is the national firestorm that would greet a doomed Justice Department prosecution of The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times.That's right, it's just the latest example of the administration attempting to intimidate the press; the press is always the enemy of tyrants. The editorial attack came from the Wall Street Journal opinion page, the official Bush administration mouth piece in the MSM.
The administration has a more insidious game plan instead: it has manufactured and milked this controversy to reboot its intimidation of the press, hoping journalists will pull punches in an election year. There are momentous stories far more worrisome to the White House than the less-than-shocking Swift program, whether in the chaos of Anbar Province or the ruins of New Orleans. If the press muzzles itself, its under-the-radar self-censorship will be far more valuable than a Nixonesque frontal assault that ends up as a 24/7 hurricane veering toward the Supreme Court.
Will this plan work? It did after 9/11. The chilling words articulated at the get-go by Ari Fleischer (Americans must "watch what they say") carried over to the run-up to the Iraq war, when the administration's W.M.D. claims went unchallenged by most news organizations. That this strategy may work again can be seen in the fascinating escalation in tactics by the Bush White House's most powerful not-so-secret agent in the press itself, the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Journal is not Fox News or an idle blogger or radio bloviator. It's the establishment voice of the party in power. The infamous editorial it ran on June 30 ("Fit and Unfit to Print"), an instant classic, doesn't just confer its imprimatur on the administration's latest crusade to conflate aggressive journalism with treason, but also ups the ante.That's right, the Journal was attacking the Journal.
The editorial was ostensibly a frontal attack on The Times, accusing its editors of not believing America is "really at war" and of exercising bad faith in running its report on the Swift operation. But an attack on The Times by The Journal's editorial page is a shrug-inducing dog-bites-man story; the paper's conservative editorialists have long dueled with a rival whose editorials usually argue the other side. (And sometimes the Times opinion writers gleefully return the fire.) What was groundbreaking and unsettling about the Journal editorial was that it besmirched the separately run news operation of The Journal itself.
It's not about the Swift story, it's about the press reporting about the mess this administration has made in the world and how we as Americans are in grave danger as a result.
The trouble is we have plenty to worry about. For all the airy talk about the First Amendment, civil liberties and Thomas Jefferson in the debate over the Swift story and the National Security Agency surveillance story before it, there's an urgent practical matter at stake, too. Now more than ever, after years of false reports of missions accomplished, the voters need to do what Congress has failed to do and hold those who mismanage America's ever-expanding war accountable for their performance in real time.The intimidation worked after 911, we can only hope that it wont work this time. Our future depends on it.
As George Will wrote in March, all three members of the "axis of evil" - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - are "more dangerous than they were when that phrase was coined in 2002." So is Afghanistan, which is spiraling into Taliban-and-drug-lord anarchy, without nearly enough troops or other assistance to secure it. On the first anniversary of the London bombings, and on a surging wave of new bin Laden and al-Zawahiri videos, the two foremost Qaeda experts outside government, Peter Bergen and the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer, both sounded alarms that contradict the insistent administration refrain that the terrorists are on the run.
We can believe instead, if we choose to, that all is well and that the press shouldn't question our government's account of how it is winning the war brilliantly at every turn. (The former C.I.A. analytical chief, Jami Miscik, decodes this game in "The One Percent Doctrine": the administration tells "only half the story, the part that makes us look good," and keeps the other half classified.) We can believe that reporters, rather than terrorists, are the villains. We can debate whether traitorous editors should be sent to gas chambers or merely tarred and feathered.
Or we can hope that the press will rise to the occasion and bring Americans more news we can use, not less, at a perilous time when every piece of information counts.
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Frank Rich, Swift, Press