President Bush and Vice President Cheney are taking the lead in bashing the media — and in Cheney's case, specificially the New York Times — for reporting on a U.S. effort to monitor the banking transactions of suspected terrorists.
Meanwhile, Dean Baquet, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, offers his own defense for running with the story.
The decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly. We considered very seriously the government's assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion against the fact that there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties.
We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department's program did not pose that threat. Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries. In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism.
In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.
Some media critics may consider Baquet's position to be one of arrogance.
But in our democratic society, in which the Constitution protects the right of the media to report on the activities of government, editors, not government officials, get to decide if and when a story gets published.
I wonder whether the vehemence of the Bush administration's response to the the stories being published is more a political ploy than a reflection of the actual "damage" done by the revelations. Is the revealation of the bank monitoring more damaging than the earlier reports about warrantless wiretaps and monitoring of phone records? After those earlier cases, there was no talk about throwing reporters and editors in jail, like we are hearing now.
But now, government officials, in what seems to be a coordinated effort to bash the press, are raising the ante in a very dangerous way.
I agree that journalists need to be responsible about reporting stories that might get people killed. However, it is our responsibility — FYI: I am a professional journalist — to uncover what the government is doing and report those stories. That is especially true in cases where government activities might be infringing on our constitutionally protected rights.
That responsibility sometimes requires striking a balance between national security and the public's right to know. I'd just rather have journalists, and not the government, decide where that balance is.
(This post is adapted from comments I left earlier at Babalú)
UPDATED, 10:35 a.m.
Andrew Sullivan strikes a middle ground, of sorts.