I used to agree with the idea that journalists hate getting beat. But then I saw Philip Taubman speak at Stanford on secrecy in the Bush administration. It was in a basement type lecture hall. The room did not fill up.
He sat on the stage and spoke about his experiences traveling with Maureen Dowd and carrying her bags. He brandished a book by Eric Lichtblau, titled Bush’s Law; The Remaking of American Justice, and there were moments the irony was so thick I nearly choked.
For example, I think Philip Taubman compared the NSA wiretapping story broken by the New York Times to the printing of the Pentagon Papers. There’s at least one crucial difference between those two events: The New York Times circa 1971 did not sit on the Pentagon Papers for thirteen months. Furthermore, when the President approached the Times and asked them not to publish, they refused… in 1971. In 2005, they listened to Bush for ten more days. Is he just that much more likable than Nixon?
Philip Taubman insisted at the time that he didn’t sit on the story in order to help Bush get re-elected. As an observer, I cannot know what he feared that kept him from printing. But I do know that in 1971, the Supreme Court upheld the Times’ right to publish. Nixon stopped the presses when he couldn’t convince the Times not to publish, and the court started them up again. In 2004, this man watched an election unfold with secret knowledge about one of the candidates. In 2008, he told what little crowd there was, that it was the right decision. I know because I asked him if he would have done anything differently. I want to put that in perspective, here’s a description of the tone in 1971:
“As the press rooms of the Times and the Post began to hum to the lifting of the censorship order, the journalists of America pondered with grave concern the fact that for fifteen days the ‘free press’ of the nation had been prevented from publishing an important document and for their troubles had been given an inconclusive and uninspiring ‘burden-of-proof’ decision by a sharply divided Supreme Court. There was relief, but no great rejoicing, in the editorial offices of America’s publishers and broadcasters.”
Thomas Tedford and Dale Herbeck
The country that would have been concerned is gone. In its place is one where journalists censor themselves for over a year, and are then awarded a Pulitzer. When our journalists brush by authority, they’re suddenly patriotic:
They chose to wait another ten days when the President asked them to. No injunctions required among gentlemen. I’m sorry Taubman, because I’m sure it is intimidating to have this access. It must feel fragile sometimes. But if you’re not going to use it I sure would like to borrow it for a little while. It’s worthwhile to think about the origins of the free press our Bill of Rights names. When Thomas Jefferson wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, it was deemed too incendiary by Virginia’s House of Burgesses… but his friends convinced a young widow to print it on her press.
This right has nothing to do with editors and journalists. A press is just a machine you make copies with, and the right to a free press just means no one can tell you what to print. Official presses have always moved in this ecology of secrecy and discretion. And so does their emissary, deep in the bowels of his alma mater telling us the horror stories of our government, when it is too late to change the endings.