Slate's Shafer: 'Bush Wants Us to Trust Him. I'd Rather Trust Bill Keller'
In a piece posted Thursday night, Jack Shafer, media critic for the Washington Post-owned online magazine Slate, ponders the current tension between the Bush administration and the press over the latter's reporting of some of the former's anti-terrorist methods. Shafer posits that Bush and company's angry reaction to said reporting
signal[s] the breakdown of the traditional comity—I wouldn't call it "trust"—that has existed between the White House and the press. Since the end of WWII, the press has sought White House input whenever its reporters bumped up against issues of national security, and if the press has erred it's mostly erred in favor of the government position. For a good summary of recent instances in which the [New York Times and Los Angeles Times] and the Washington Post have held stories or deleted sensitive information at the administration's request, see [NYT editor Bill] Keller and [LAT editor Dean] Baquet's joint op-ed...defending publication of their SWIFT stories.
...In an open society such as ours, it's up to the White House to convince the editors not to publish. I claim no inside knowledge about why talks between the administration and the Timeses cratered. Gauging from the White House's fury, I suspect that it either failed to make a plausible case for keeping the program secret or didn't want to make a case.
If the administration failed to make the case, my guess is that it's opted to mask its failure by fouling relations with the press. If it didn't want to make the case, its petulance would be understandable if not forgivable. The press has been running the table against the administration when it comes to publishing stories about classified programs...
Shafer's a libertarian, so it's unsurprising that he's skeptical of governmental claims. Nonetheless, "make the case" isn't an apt phrase given that in such disputes, no neutral third party determines which side prevails. Rather, one of the interested parties -- the press -- is also what President Bush might call "the decider." For a sense of how that might work in another context, imagine Roger Federer not only playing in tomorrow's Wimbledon men's final, but also getting to make the line calls -- or, to pick up Shafer's billiards metaphor, it's no wonder that "the press has been running the table," since it's the only player in the game that's using a cue.
Shafer wraps up by calling for open debate:
[I]f Bush thinks the government needs stronger measures to scrutinize financial transactions beyond what the multitudinous laws on the books already allow, his party should introduce new legislation. If he thinks investigators need more leeway in monitoring American phone conversations, let him introduce another bill. If he believes our national security requires nameless dungeons for terror suspects around the world, let him openly request that authority.
But instead of convening such a debate, Bush wants us to trust him. I'd rather trust Bill Keller.
Shafer's anti-statist worldview really ought to allow for the fact that Bush, unlike Keller, was elected.