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Freedom of the Press
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. [writer] 7/19/06

The late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1961 that “criticism of government finds sanctuary in several portions of the first amendment. It is part of the right of free speech. It embraces freedom of the press.” Twelve years later, the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger observed that “for better or for worse, editing is what editors are for; and editing is selection and choice of material. That editors –newspaper or broadcast- can and do abuse this power is beyond doubt…”

The decision by the editors of The New York Times to disclose a secret government program to track financial data used to finance terrorist networks and operations was, in my opinion, an egregious abuse of the power of the press and its first amendment privileges. In its crusade to catch the government doing something – anything - wrong, the newspaper failed to act responsibly. By exposing this program, it undermined it and provided our enemies with valuable information about a program designed, not to spy on Americans but to enhance their security by more effectively pursuing the war on terrorism.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

This was not an innocent error in judgment. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow says that he and various other high-ranking officials of both parties pleaded with the newspaper not to publish this sensitive information. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said that “we weighed most heavily the administration’s concern that describing this program would endanger it.” He published it, nevertheless, placing his judgment and interests ahead of the concerns of the experts and officials responsible for such programs. This is arrogance on a grand scale. Moreover, if we were sufficiently serious about our determination to win this war, those responsible would be charged with treason.

Other newspapers followed the Times’ lead, including the normally pro-administration Wall Street Journal. Once the story broke, of course, the damage was done and the news was fair game. The conservative WSJ, however, was quick to distance itself from the Times, noting in an editorial that the liberal Times has been a constant critic of the administration and the war in Iraq. There’s the crux of the problem. Much of the liberal media is so intent on bashing Bush, his administration and “his” war that it has lost all objectivity. It sees Bush as the real enemy.

Since I first took journalism classes and edited my small college newspaper, I have loved print journalism and supported freedom of the press. But over the years, I have observed an erosion of balance, fairness and objectivity in the media. I am not speaking here only of editorials and opinion columns, but also editing decisions and what passes as straight news reporting. I believe that editors are obsessing over their “duty” to keep Americans informed. In wartime that often means keeping the enemy informed as well. Their qualifications to make the judgments involved in making decisions over whether or not to publish news affecting national security are, to put it mildly, questionable and their judgment and objectivity are influenced by their obvious political bias.

In truth, there is no constitutionally guaranteed right of the public to know everything. Dissemination of classified information impacting the security of the United States is governed by a strict need to know process. Access to classified information carries with it heavy responsibilities for its security. The mainstream media are probably far more concerned about the public’s “right to know” than the public itself is, judging from the steady decline in newspaper readership.

The greater fault here lies with the traitors who leak such information anonymously. But if editors are as wise and responsible as they often give themselves credit for, they would satisfy themselves beyond reasonable doubt that the information they publish will not damage the security of the United States or her people. They would keep in mind that it is a secure America that ensures the press its freedom in the first place.

The lesson that the administration should take away is that there must be zero tolerance for those who leak security information for any reason. Whistleblowers often serve a useful purpose in many areas of business and government but not when they substitute their judgment over that of responsible superiors in matters of national security. Nor are journalists above the law. When directed by courts to reveal such sources, they should be compelled to do so or face the consequences. The media concern over sources drying up can never take precedence over national security and public safety. The latter is more important by far than selling newspapers. CRO

copyright 2006 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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