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November 10, 2004
Kristofian Hysteria

Nicholas Kristof would probably conclude that the cause of rainy days can and should be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration, based on his hysterical rant today about the freedom of the press. Kristof blames a rash of judges holding reporters in contempt for their secrecy on George Bush, not because any of the judges are Bush appointees (they're not), but because he sets an example of -- get this -- secrecy!

Paging China! Help us! Urge the U.S. government to respect freedom of the press!

It does sound topsy-turvy, doesn't it? Generally, it's China and Zimbabwe that are throwing journalists in prison, while the U.S. denounces the repression over there.

But now similar abuses are about to unfold within the United States, part of an alarming new pattern of assault on American freedom of the press. In the last few months, three different U.S. federal judges, each appointed by President Ronald Reagan, have found a total of eight journalists in contempt of court for refusing to reveal confidential sources, and the first of them may go to prison before the year is out. Some of the rest may be in prison by spring.

In each of these cases, reporters have used confidential sources to produce blockbuster exposs on crimes within the government. After garnering their big ratings and generating lots of ad revenue by publicly outing wrongdoers, these reporters suddenly get a case of terminal shyness when it comes to prosecuting the same criminals they've exposed. Reporters have claimed the First Amendment allows them to keep their sources confidential, but federal courts have never agreed to that interpretation. Only in California, where this privilege specifically exists in the state constitution, can reporters avoid their civic responsibility to not withhold evidence of criminal behavior on the part of others.

Take, for example, the Valerie Plame case. A government official leaked the status of Plame as a CIA agent in order to either (a) explain why her husband, the discredited Ambassador Joe Wilson, was inexplicably given a CIA assignment for which he was not qualified and which he performed poorly, or (b) in revenge for Wilson's outspoken opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Robert Novak broke the story, but two other reporters have specific knowledge of the leaker and refuse to divulge their sources, and have been found in contempt for not revealing them. (For some reason, as Kristof points out, Novak has escaped a contempt charge, and I agree with Kristof that Novak should be treated the same.)

Kristof wails about medieval treatment of these two reporters, but let's not forget that the press made this an issue in the first place, and the New York Times spent weeks clamoring for greater cooperation from George Bush in uncovering the leaker. The press demanded a full investigation and, again led by the Times, accused Bush of deliberately blocking the probe to protect high government officials from prosecution -- an impeachable offense. After making these accusation, however, and indeed after creating the entire controversy, the press refuses to back up its accusations with any kind of proof. It deliberately does the exact same thing that it acccuses the Administration of doing -- withholding evidence -- and expects to be treated as heroes for doing so.

All of this belongs to the same tropes that have existed since Watergate -- where the press sees itself as avenging heroes of truth. Unfortunately for Kristof, the avenging part seems to be in full play this year for the press but the truth part has been somewhat deficient. For the entire year we have been bombarded with stories of George Bush's National Guard sevice as if it were the equivalent of My Lai, culminating in the Times' partner, CBS, foisting a series of forged documents on its viewers in order to smear Bush.

Kristof acknowledges that the press is "seen as arrogant and biased", neatly maneuvering around the fact that they are arrogant and biased, and that their determination to be treated differently than anyone else defying a subpoena provides prima facie evidence of that arrogaance. The bias comes out in Kristof's assignment of blame to the Bush administration:

Responsibility lies primarily with the judges rather than with the Bush administration, except for the demand for phone records and for the appointment of Inspector Javert as special prosecutor. But it's probably not a coincidence that we're seeing an offensive against press freedoms during an administration that has a Brezhnevian fondness for secrecy.

It's probably less of a coincidence that the same news organizations that make accusations against the Bush administration fail to provide any evidence of wrongdoing and their reporters refuse to testify to bolster those charges. Blaming Bush for the actions of the judiciary, especially when the judges in question were appointed more than a decade before Bush took office, is not only ludicrous but hysterical, a lazy sky-is-falling, the-second-Dark-Ages-have-come reporting that completely undermines any argument Kristof might have for enshrining his interpretation of the First Amendment into law.

Being a member of the press does not confer upon reporters a special class of citizenship and a right to disregard the law. It doesn't even require that they be fair and objective, and in these days of forged National Guard memos and double standards for partisan differences, press membership doesn't imbue even a rudimentary sense of fair play. Reporters need to quit being hypocrites and start following the same laws they demand the rest of us respect.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 10, 2004 5:58 AM

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