Monday, June 26, 2006

Compromising National Security from an Ivory Tower

A few days ago I gave an analysis of the New York Times decision to publish the classified information about the government’s effort to track down terrorist financial networks. I suggested that this was a marketing effort to get the government to take them to court where they could carry on almost endlessly about how they were protecting the citizens of the country from a rogue government and that they were the only organization large enough to be able to do this. After listening to interviews of various newspapermen involved with the story I am now convinced that I was partly right and partly wrong.

First, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that the news media see themselves as the primary protectors of the citizens from the government. If you read Bill Keller’s letter defending the NYT’s story, it reeks of this.

the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government...The question we start with as journalists is not "why publish?" but "why would we withhold information of significance?"...some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to the Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government's actions ...
If we don't go publish these stories, then who knows what horrible things the government will do to you?

Hugh Hewitt interviewed the LA Times’ Washington bureau chief on the air today and I was struck by the academic, theoretical tone of the man’s answers. They went something like this:

“Did you believe the government when they told you this would harm the war on terror?”

“I neither believed them nor disbelieved them. I had no information upon which to base the decision.”

No one talks like this. Even his speech pattern was off, as if he was thinking in another language and translating it before it passed his lips. It was as if the fellow was with us, but not of us. I could imagine him dining on ambrosia in some pagan temple and looking down upon the poor drones toiling away while he sat in judgment of them.

I was wrong when I suggested that the newspapers had such a sophisticated marketing effort under way. It’s clear that this was no marketing effort at all. It is true that approval of this story went all the way to the top of their companies, but their interviews just aren’t correlating enough to suggest that any of this was coordinated.

This wasn’t a marketing effort, it was just stupid. I also do not believe that the desire to harm the Republicans, the country or President Bush in particular was at play here. Both of the interviews I heard and the letter from Bill Keller were nearly radioactive with an ivory tower, naïve tone. Hugh Hewitt uncovered their biographical data and neither of them has ever been outside of the newspaper business for any significant length of time.

If you view the news media as a religious institution, this all begins to make sense. Their reasoning has a circular, theological quality to it. Doubting Thomas on steroids, if you will. Airplanes were rammed into skyscrapers by people chanting passages from the Koran, but can we really know why they did it? And what does it mean to know?

It’s as if they can’t buy a grapefruit at the supermarket without first testing to see if it is, indeed, a grapefruit. “I neither believed nor disbelieved that it was a grapefruit,” they would say, “for I had no facts upon which to base my conclusion.”

For the rest of us, the effects of their work are self-evident. If you blow the lid off of an intelligence gathering effort, you’ve screwed us all. This is an information and public relations war. Unfortunately, they’re at the heart of both aspects of it.

Hugh has suggested that the best course of action is a congressional resolution. Others have recommended arresting them and putting them on trial for espionage. I would like to suggest a third option.

I’d like to see them put into a mental institution. Clearly they don't live in the real world with the rest of us.

Update: The editor of the LA Times, Dean Baquet, penned a reponse to the criticism today. After reading it, I want to apologize to everyone for having suggested any marketing sophistication from these people at all. It runs towards their ethereal view of the world, demanding hard evidence that someone will die because of this:
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.
I gave the criminal the gun because there was no proof he would shoot the old lady.

It hits on the familiar theme as the LAT as our protectors:
But we also have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That's the role of the press in our democracy.
Save us, LAT, save us from the government!

Where it fails as a marketing effort is that it does not differentiate them from the blogosphere. Why do I need to pay for the LA Times? How do you use this example to show that my money bought the protection you talk about? What do I not receive from my free sources of information in exchange for my cash?

Frankly, if I had a subscription to the Times, I'd cancel it and send the money to Bill Roggio. There's a value proposition you can see.

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