The editors of National Review, after years of bashing the media while showing blind fealty to the executive branch under George W. Bush, have finally stopped biting their tongues and come out and said it: The president should exercise iron control over which reporters have access to information, including exclusion of those who displease him.
We found this passing strange, as the editors’ point is not just to wax indignant about others in the media, but to actively crush the concept of a free press. In response to the story that appeared in Friday’s New York Times (and other papers) detailing the government’s secret program to track financial transactions of suspected terrorists around the world, NR’s editors proclaim, “The administration should withdraw the newspaper’s White House press credentials because this privilege [of access to the government] has been so egregiously abused, and an aggressive investigation should be undertaken to identify and prosecute, at a minimum, the government officials who have leaked national-defense information.”
That’s right. A publication staffed by journalists (whether they like to consider themselves as such or not) has officially called for the government of the United States to ban a publication from covering the White House whenever it is unhappy with what is written. Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, dismissed such action earlier today, though it’s worth looking at the NR editorial anyway, if only to counter the spin coming from some on the right.
A little further on, the editors repeat their plea, writing, “Publications such as the Times … should have their access to government reduced. Their press credentials should be withdrawn. Reporting is surely a right, but press credentials are a privilege.”
There’s no doubt that publishing an inside account of sensitive national security issues is a complicated and morally fraught business, but no matter how eager the NR’s editors are to give up their constitutionally guaranteed rights, it’s about time they realized that while having a free press is a messy business, it’s also one that we’ve managed successfully for over two centuries. As Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, put it in a letter to readers last Sunday, “[a] reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.” (That said, Keller really should say more about the thought process that went in to publishing the story. His note is fine, but doesn’t go far enough.)
As for the NR’s proposal, imagine if the Times’ access to the White House were really to be cut off — what kind of leverage would the administration then have in advocating democracy and free speech in other parts of the world? Not only would it make the United States look hypocritical, it would also take away our moral standing when criticizing other governments for suppressing dissent and free speech.
Of course, as is so often the case, NR was taking its cue from one or more right-wing politicians. Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) told Fox News’ Chris Wallace this past Sunday, “I’m calling on the attorney general to begin a criminal investigation and prosecution of the New York Times, its reporters, the editors that worked on this, and the publisher … I believe they violated the Espionage Act, the Comint Act.”