National Journal Columnist: 'The First Amendment Needs a Terri Schiavo Moment'

June 30th, 2006 4:16 PM

The uproar over last week's New York Times expose' of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program still isn't cacophonous enough for National Journal media columnist William Powers:

Watching the story play out, I've found myself hoping...that the conflict will get hotter and uglier and eventually wind up in court...Why? Because this country needs to have a great, big, loud, come-to-Jesus argument about the role of the press in a time of war, terror, and secrecy.

...A poll...conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in Chicago recently found that Americans know more about The Simpsons than they do about the First Amendment -- a lot more.

Freedom of speech may never be as engaging as a classic sitcom. But if Americans had a ripping good brawl to focus on, they might tune in. The only way to get the public to focus on anything in this news-drenched world is to make it larger than life, bigger than a movie. The First Amendment needs a Terri Schiavo moment, a Katrina, a story that stops everything the way a 7.5-magnitude California/>/>/>/> earthquake does.

To be sure, Powers would have a rooting interest in such a brawl:  

...[T]he administration and its allies have worked hard to portray the New York Times as a coven of knee-jerk leftists, implicitly pro-terrorist...

Yet the Times' editor and point man on this story, Bill Keller, is nothing like this caricature. His defense of his decision to publish the latest disclosure has been logical and reasonable. What's more, he's no leftist, but more of a tortured centrist. As an op-ed columnist, Keller supported the Iraq/>/> war, calling himself a "reluctant hawk." />/>

Powers' dubious description of Keller’s politics aside, those last two sentences suggest that no one who’s generally left of center could have favored invading Iraq/>/> – a claim which certainly would surprise Christopher Hitchens and Joe Lieberman, among many others.

And, regarding Rep. Peter King's call for the Justice Department to investigate the Times, Powers opines, "There are plenty of reasons to hope that there will be no such investigation, especially if you believe that a free press is as crucial to the country's security and well-being as any intelligence program could ever be."

In other words, if you advocate official scrutiny of the Times' role in bringing TFTP to light, you are, at best, a fair-weather friend of the First Amendment. When Powers said he wanted this debate to get uglier, apparently implications like that one were part of what he was talking about.