Editors of the New York Times, along with their allies in journalism, when defending the publication of anti-terrorism programs, often start by declaring their actions to be in the "public interest," making them a watchdog against what they view as excessive government power and secrecy. But the tables need to be turned. What about excessive media power and secrecy?
There’s something bizarre about the Times rushing out to protest excessive secrecy in the Bush administration — and then touting the testimony of secret sources as its evidence.
Media theorists have declared that anonymous sources are crucial to holding government accountable. But who is holding the anonymous source accountable? Or the newspaper using the anonymous source?
Major media outlets regularly pledge to protect the identity of their secret sources and even will send their reporters to jail — like Judith Miller at the New York Times — rather than break that secrecy pledge. Don’t believe for a minute that this is all grounded in a sense of honor. They do this, among other reasons, as a business proposition. If a newspaper like the New York Times wants to be competitive in the national media elite, it needs big scoops (almost always based on anonymous sources) to be profitable. Just try being a competitive media outlet with the pledge that you, unlike the rest of the secrecy-guaranteeing press, will only use on-the-record statements in your Washington news coverage. It’s not a promising business model.
This financial angle also holds true with individual reporters as well as media institutions. Don’t forget that when the New York Times busted open the NSA terrorist-surveillance program last December, Times reporter James Risen wasn’t selflessly serving the public interest: He also had a book coming out titled "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." This was no coincidence. It was a purposely-timed commingling of "public interest" and private profit.
But let’s introduce the idea of bias and partisanship into the media secrecy equation, because it underscores a different kind of private interest — reporters and editors privately rooting for one party or the other to win the day. In the 1990s, when national-security reporter Bill Gertz at the Washington Times broke one story after another using anonymous sources, making the Clinton-Gore administration look weak on national defense, did the rest of the national media elite run to copy the story? Usually, the answer was no, because they did not believe Gertz and/or his anonymous sources were truthful or nonpartisan. In a word, they didn’t want to further the damage these stories were inflicting on their Democratic friends in the White House.
So what makes the New York Times more trustworthy or believable?
The paper’s sympathy for liberalism is clear in its news columns and its editorial pages, from executive editor Bill Keller’s inane old declarations that Pope John Paul brought communism to the Catholic Church to hippie publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s recent graduation speech proclaiming that liberals shouldn’t still have to be protesting "a misbegotten war in a foreign land."
When the New York Times is whacking at this administration with anonymous sources, why do the rest of the national media jump to publicize it, no questions asked?
Please don’t try the line that the New York Times is the essence of American journalistic objectivity. It is to laugh. Even Keller doesn’t believe that myth, insisting to CBS anchor Bob Schieffer that "we’re not neutral" in the war on terrorism. And yet others at the Times continue playing the objectivity card.
In a cozy appearance on National Public Radio’s "The Diane Rehm Show," Times reporter Eric Lichtblau insisted that "I saw no sign that the people that I talked to were motivated by political concerns … I think it’s a mistake for your listeners to think that leakers, as people like to call them, are motivated by political smear campaigns, are out to hurt the president. I think that’s an oversimplification of why people put themselves in that position."
Rehm could have asked, but unsurprisingly chose not to: Did Lichtblau ask these anonymous sources if they had personal agendas? Or ask them who they voted for in the last election? Can Lichtblau tell us these anonymous leakers were all pure of heart, all unblemished patriots? And considering the biases of the Times, should anyone believe him?