As soon as the New York Times revealed, late last month, the existence of a government program to comb through the bank records of millions of people as a way of catching terrorists, it was it was a given that those on the right would use the opportunity to claim that, once again, the commie pinkos on West 43rd Street were proving how much they hate America. Almost immediately, both the vice president and the president attacked the paper, with Bush saying, “We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America.”


But even this signal from the top itself that the Times was to be considered a treacherous foe could not entirely prepare one for the sputtering red-faced anger directed at the paper earlier this week at a protest in front of its offices demanding that the paper be prosecuted for running the story. The New York Sun captured the scene, as did Gawker: “Protesters stood facing the Times’s office carrying signs displaying angry messages, such as ‘Osama’s Favorite Paper.’ Men dressed as Osama bin Laden clutched copies of the newspaper, and held up signs declaring, ‘I Love the New York Times’ and ‘It Makes Me Feel Like I’m In the Know!’…A spokeswoman for Action Alliance, sponsors of the event alongside the Brooklyn Young Republican Club, said that the Times had ‘fully informed the Jihadists and creeps over in Europe’ of American security efforts. ‘They might as well have just sent an e-mail to bin Laden,’ she said.”


One of the protest’s organizers, radio talk show host Rabbi Aryeh Spero, mocked readers of the paper, as “snobs on the Upper West Side” and “trans-nationalists and cosmopolitans,” who call themselves “citizens of the world, not Americans.” The good rabbi even played the French card: “They think that they have had graduated from America and see themselves more as Parisians or something like that.”


Even those on the right were quick to disassociate themselves from the ravings of the angry crowd. On the National Review’s media blog, Nathan Goulding and Stephen Spruiell covered the protest, writing that it was “nothing short of embarrassing,” and lamenting that “it was sad to see the right engaging in the worst rhetorical excesses of the left.” Their bigger point was that the protesters call for prosecution of the Times was misguided. Instead, they wrote, “Critics of the NYT’s decision should focus…on prosecuting the leakers and persuading the public that exposing sensitive national security programs is not a legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.”


We suspect politics. We wouldn’t want to question the right’s sincerity over this issue: we are sure many of its rank do think that the Times is in the pocket of the Michael Moore’s and Cindy Sheehan’s of the world. But they have always thought that, even before this most recent revelation.


It’s clear that this new mobilization against the Times, and executive editor Bill Keller in particular, is a matter of having found a juicy and, even more important, distracting target. Calling for the paper’s prosecution is a way to get on the offensive at a time when much of the right, rocked back on its heels by everything from events in Iraq to the president’s flagging poll numbers to a soaring national deficit, has been playing defense. Even Christopher Hitchens, now firmly embraced as a friend by the administration, said as much in a recent Slate column: “This issue has also given the right-wing rank and file something to really gnaw upon, and I expect it will be with us all the way up to, and including, the fall elections.” Hitchens writes that though there is “hypocrisy” on the part of the Times’ editors (because of their defense of the right to secrecy in the Valerie Plame affair), the papers attackers have been in engaging in much “demagoguery.”


The Gray Lady has always been a convenient bogeyman for the right. The unfortunate bit about this episode is that there is actually an interesting and crucial conversation to be had over this issue - one that Keller himself, along with his Los Angeles Times counterpart, Dean Baquet, tried to initiate last week, and one that was then picked up by a number of prominent journalism school deans, writing by committee on the Washington Post’s op-ed page.


But how is Keller, or anyone, supposed to have a reasoned debate when your opponent on the other side is producing little more than spittle and bile?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.