“Media Matters”; by Paul Waldman

This week, the conservatives declared war.

Not on The New York Times. Not even on the media in general. No, this week the entire conservative movement -- from the White House to Republicans in Congress to Fox News to right-wing talk radio to conservative magazines -- declared war on the very idea of an independent press.

A declaration of war

This week, the conservatives declared war.

Not on The New York Times. Not even on the media in general. No, this week the entire conservative movement -- from the White House to Republicans in Congress to Fox News to right-wing talk radio to conservative magazines -- declared war on the very idea of an independent press.

They declared war on the idea that journalists have not just the right but the obligation to hold those in power accountable for their actions. They declared war on the idea that journalists, not the government and not a political party, get to decide what appears in the press. They declared war on the idea that the public has a right to know what the government is doing in our name.

This is a profound threat to our democracy, and we underestimate it at our peril.

Here at Media Matters for America, we spend a great deal of time pointing out the news media's faults and missteps. But we do so because we believe in journalism, because we want journalism to fulfill its sacred obligations to the public, because we know that even in the world's oldest democracy, a free press is what stands between us and tyranny. The right wing, to put it plainly, does not share this belief.

There is a reason the Founders singled out the press for special protection when they wrote the Bill of Rights. It was because they understood that without an independent, free, aggressive, courageous press, democracy itself is impossible. When the government decides who gets to report the news and what they get to say, we no longer live in a free society. When journalists live under threat of prosecution and even violence, we cease to be citizens and become only subjects.

The right has kept the media under constant assault for decades, and the response from the media has been to bend over backward to prove they aren't biased -- by being harder on Democrats. They should have learned long ago that the “liberal bias” charge has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the news. It is a political strategy, a way of “working the ref” and providing easy excuses for public rejection of the right's goals. But what we have seen this week is something qualitatively different.

Given the constant drumbeat of criticism directed at the media from conservatives, it might be easy to dismiss this latest expulsion of bile as just more of the same. But it's worth stepping back to take a look at exactly what has occurred over the past week. Members of Congress have suggested revoking the Capitol Hill credentials of journalists, so that only news organizations that do not displease the ruling party may be permitted to report from Congress. Other members have accused members of the media of “treason” and advocated their prosecution. A conservative television and radio personality suggested that the government establish an Office of Censorship to screen the news. Another said, “I would have no problem with [New York Times editor Bill Keller] being sent to the gas chamber.” The House of Representatives passed a resolution saying it “expects the cooperation of all news media organizations.”

In short, the right assembled a posse this week -- vigilantes stalking television studios, radio airwaves, print, and the Internet, their apparent goal to revoke the First Amendment.

So let's review what happened. The New York Times published a story detailing a government program attempting to monitor the movement of money to terrorist organizations, through an arrangement with SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. Members of the administration and their allies in Congress quickly came forward to allege that terrible damage had been done to national security:

  • Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that the article “made it more difficult for us to prevent attacks in the future” and “will enable the terrorists to look for ways to defeat our efforts.”
  • President Bush commented, “If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try to follow their money. And that's exactly what we're doing. And the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror.”
  • White House press secretary Tony Snow said the newspaper “ought to think long and hard about whether a public's right to know in some cases might override somebody's right to live” and suggested that the article “could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans.”
  • Rep. Peter King (R-NY) argued that the Times had “compromised” the program and “violated the Espionage Act.” King urged the attorney general to prosecute the “reporters, the editors who worked on this, and the publisher.”

Conservative media figures agreed that while the day before Al Qaeda was blissfully unaware that the United States had any interest in the movement of their money, now they knew we were on to them. Just a few examples:

  • Michelle Malkin, syndicated columnist: “The New York Times (proudly publishing all the secrets unfit to spill since 9/11) and their reckless anonymous sources (come out, come out, you cowards) tipped off terrorists to America's efforts to track their financial activities.” ["The terrorist-tipping Times," 6/28/06]
  • Cal Thomas, syndicated columnist and Fox News host: “If our enemies now see the way we are going after them on the front page of The New York Times, the L.A. Times, The Washington Post, all they have to do is wait a little bit and counteract our counteracting measures. ... [W]hen you give too information to the other side, you're simply setting yourself up for another attack or defeat.” [Fox News Watch, 6/24/06]
  • Editors of National Review: “The terrorists will now adapt. They will find new ways of transferring funds, and precious lines of intelligence will be lost. Murderers will get the resources they need to carry out their grisly business. As for the real public interest, it lies primarily in safety -- and what the Times has ensured is that the public today is less safe.” ["Stop the Leaks," 6/26/06]
  • Brit Hume, Fox News Washington managing editor: "[N]ow they [the terrorists] know it. That's the problem. Now they know it. ... The objective is to find out what channels they are using, who's got the money and where it's coming from. ... You don't want to drive this stuff further underground because it undermines your ability to track it and to stop it." [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 6/25/06]
  • William Kristol, editor, The Weekly Standard: Asked how the program's disclosure damaged national security, Kristol responded, “Because this has broken up plots that now they may be able to go around the international banking system.” [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 6/25/06]
  • NewsMax, conservative news website: “That newspaper, of course, is the New York Times, now rapidly taking on the role of Osama bin Laden's reliable informant.” ["Reminder to the N.Y. Times: We Are At War," 6/27/06]

There was only one problem with this argument: For nearly five years, George W. Bush and other members of his administration have been proclaiming proudly that they have been tracking terrorist financing through international financial institutions.

Beginning fewer than two weeks after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has “been very public about its efforts to track the overseas banking transactions of Americans and other foreign nationals,” as a June 28 Boston Globe article noted. Keller addressed this issue in a June 25 letter to his readers, noting that the administration had voiced concerns prior to the article's publication that it “would lead terrorists to change tactics.” Keller noted in response, “It has been widely reported -- indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department -- that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror.” Following are numerous examples:

  • In a September 24, 2001, speech, Bush announced the establishment of a “foreign terrorist asset tracking center at the Department of the Treasury to identify and investigate the financial infrastructure of the international terrorist networks.” He added, “It will bring together representatives of the intelligence, law enforcement, and financial regulatory agencies to accomplish two goals: to follow the money as a trail to the terrorists, to follow their money so we can find out where they are; and to freeze the money to disrupt their actions.”
  • In a September 24, 2001, letter to Congress, Bush noted, “Terrorists and terrorist networks operate across international borders and derive their financing from sources in many nations. Often, terrorist property and financial assets lie outside the jurisdiction of the United States.” He affirmed his commitment to working with international agencies such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) “to build momentum and practical cooperation in the fight to stop the flow of resources to support terrorism.”
  • A White House fact sheet published on September 24, 2001, noted the launch of the Treasury Department's Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center (FTAT): “The FTAT is a multi-agency task force that will identify the network of terrorist funding and freeze assets before new acts of terrorism take place.”
  • In a September 26, 2001, statement, Bush said, “We're fighting them on a financial front. We're choking off their money. We're seizing their assets. We will be relentless as we pursue their sources of financing. And I want to thank the Secretary of Treasury for leading that effort.”
  • On October 1, 2001, Bush told FEMA employees, “As you may remember, I made it clear that part of winning the war against terror would be to cut off these evil people's money; it would be to trace their assets and freeze them, cut off their cash flows, hold people accountable who fund them, who allow the funds to go through their institutions; and not only do that at home, but to convince others around the world to join us in doing so.”
  • On October 10, 2001, Bush stated that the “nations of NATO are sharing intelligence, coordinating law enforcement and cracking down on the financing of terrorist organizations.”
  • During remarks at FTAT, then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said, "[W]e have begun to act -- to block assets, to seize books, records and evidence, and to follow audit trails to track terrorist cells poised to do violence to our common interests." O'Neill added, “We have built an international coalition to deny terrorists access to the world financial system.”
  • A December 2001 report on the steps the administration had taken to combat terrorism noted that the FATF "-- a 29-nation group promoting policies to combat money laundering -- adopted strict new standards to deny terrorist access to the world financial system."
  • A September 10, 2004, Treasury Department statement read: “The targeting of terrorist financing continues to play an important role in the war on terror. Freezing assets, terminating cash flows, and following money trails to previously unknown terrorist cells are some of the many weapons used against terrorist networks.”

Moreover, SWIFT's cooperation in international efforts to monitor terrorists' banking activities was a matter of public knowledge long before the Times detailed the Treasury Department program. As former Bush administration counterterrorism official Roger Cressey noted in the June 28 Globe article, “There have been public references to SWIFT before. ... It has been in the public domain before.” Indeed, in his June 28 column, washingtonpost.com columnist Dan Froomkin noted that according to SWIFT's website, the consortium has a “history of cooperating in good faith with authorities such as central banks, treasury departments, law enforcement agencies and appropriate international organisations, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in their efforts to combat abuse of the financial system for illegal activities.” And as former State Department official Victor Comras noted in a June 23 Counterterrorism Blog post, the United Nations Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group learned of the SWIFT program years ago -- a fact the group incorporated into its December 2002 report to the U.N. Security Council:

The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions. The Group recommends the adoption of similar mechanisms by other countries.

And long before June 23, Bush and other administration officials acknowledged that terrorists were increasingly using other methods of transferring money to evade detection. As Media Matters wrote:

In testimony before Congress in 2004, Treasury Department undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart A. Levey said, “As the formal and informal financial sectors become increasingly inhospitable to financiers of terrorism, we have witnessed an increasing reliance by Al Qaida and terrorist groups on cash couriers. The movement of money via cash couriers is now one of the principal methods that terrorists use to move funds.” In 2002 and 2003, the Congressional Research Service documented terrorists' increased use of alternative money flows, including “informal value transfer [hawala] systems that leave virtually no paper trail." Further, various news outlets and independent organizations have noted terrorist organizations' hesitance to use the international banking system in recent years.

Yet White House press secretary Tony Snow said during his June 27 press briefing, “I am absolutely sure they [the terrorists] didn't know about SWIFT.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. When the NSA domestic spying scandal broke, the administration and its defenders argued -- just as absurdly -- that Al Qaeda terrorists now knew we were trying to listen in on their phone calls. But of course, they had known that for years. What that story revealed was not that the government was monitoring phone calls, but that it was doing so in violation of the law and without the proper warrants. When he was confronted with the obvious fact that Al Qaeda terrorists were quite well aware they were being monitored during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales replied, “If they're not reminded about it all the time, in the newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget.”

Nonetheless, as we detailed, this week conservatives trooped to television studios to propose that the Times be prosecuted for treason:

  • Melanie Morgan, radio talk show host: “I see it as treason, plain and simple, and my advice to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at this point in time is chop-chop, hurry up, let's get these prosecutors fired up and get the subpoenas served, get the indictments going, and get these guys [Keller and The New York Times] behind jail.” [MSNBC's Hardball, 6/26/06]
  • Ann Coulter, right-wing pundit: [R]evealing a classified program, which no one thinks violates any laws ... that has led to the capture of various terrorists, and to various terrorist money-laundering operations. If that is not treason, then we're not prosecuting anymore." [MSNBC's Scarborough Country, 6/26/06]
  • William Kristol, editor, The Weekly Standard: “I think the Justice Department has an obligation to consider prosecution. ... This isn't a partisan thing of the Bush administration. This is a U.S. government secret program in a time of war, willfully exposed for no good reason by The New York Times.” [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 6/25/06]

Many other conservative media figures took to the airwaves to claim that The New York Times was aiming to help Al Qaeda:

  • L. Brent Bozell III, president, Media Research Center: "The New York Times needs to be reminded ... that on September 11, 2001, something really awful happened right down the street from the newspaper. ... And the last thing we need is The New York Times aiding and abetting the terrorist movement. And that's exactly what they're doing by divulging these secrets." [Fox News' Fox & Friends, 6/27/06]
  • Rush Limbaugh, syndicated radio host: “If you look at The New York Times and the kind of stories they're leaking and running and the information they're getting, it's clear that they're trying to help the terrorists. They're trying to help the jihadists.” Limbaugh added that he thought that “80 percent of their subscribers have to be jihadists.” According to the latest circulation statistics, the Times sells more than 690,000 copies of its daily edition, and has more than 1.1 million subscribers to its Sunday edition, via home delivery. [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 6/27/06]
  • Andrew C. McCarthy, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: “Yet again, The New York Times was presented with a simple choice: help protect American national security or help al Qaeda. Yet again, it sided with al Qaeda.” ["The Media's War Against the War Continues," National Review Online, 6/23/06]
  • Newt Gingrich, former House speaker (R-GA) and Fox News political analyst: “You would think that The New York Times, located on the same island where the World Trade Center once existed, would have some residual memory of 9-11. You'd think that The New York Times ... would have some sense of survival. ... [M]y sense is that they hate George W. Bush so much that they would be prepared to cripple America in order to go after the president.” [Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, 6/26/06]
  • Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report senior writer: “Why do they hate us? Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack? ... We have a press that is at war with an administration, while our country is at war against merciless enemies. The Times is acting like an adolescent kicking the shins of its parents, hoping to make them hurt while confident of remaining safe under their roof. But how safe will we remain when our protection depends on the Times?” ["Why do “they” hate us?" syndicated column, 6/26/06]
  • Morton M. Kondracke, Roll Call executive editor: “And for God's sake, The New York Times ought to look down the street and remember where 9-11 happened. It really happened in New York City, you know? And they act as though it never happened.” [Fox News' The Beltway Boys, 6/24/06]
  • Heather Mac Donald, contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal: “By now it's undeniable: The New York Times is a national security threat. So drunk is it on its own power and so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified antiterror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives.” ["National Security Be Damned," The Weekly Standard, July 3 issue]

So have news organizations stood up for their colleagues at the Times? Unfortunately, the response from most of the country's editorial boards has been muted at best. A Media Matters review of the 50 papers contained in the Lexis-Nexis “major newspapers” database found that fewer than half editorialized in the Times' defense. (For the honor roll, click here.) The Wall Street Journal's editorial page criticized the Times yet somehow managed to exonerate its own reporting on the subject.

And what of the rest of the news media? Have they been beaten down so badly by years of conservative haranguing that they can't even stand up in support of independent journalism when members of Congress are calling for their colleagues to be prosecuted for doing their jobs, when right-wing talk show hosts are saying things like, “I would have no problem with [Keller] being sent to the gas chamber”? Have they not an ounce of courage left?

“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

One question many people are asking is, why now? Why is this coordinated assault on the media happening now, especially when the idea that the newspapers actually endangered national security falls apart on even a moment's examination?

One answer is that the deeper Republicans sink politically, the more eager they are to change the subject, particularly to something that will rile up their base. The fact that all the right wing's anger is focused on one of its favorite whipping boys, The New York Times -- when the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal also ran stories on the banking program -- suggests that the attack was planned for maximum political effect.

And consider what happened on Capitol Hill just before this story broke: The big story of the week was Iraq, the albatross around the administration's neck. Republicans had gleefully brought up for debate two Democratic proposals on the war, sure that they could successfully paint the opposition as weak, cowardly advocates of “cut and run,” yet things weren't turning out quite as they had hoped.

And at first, the media were happy to help. As we discussed last week, despite the fact that Republicans were unified in their support for the indefinite continuation of an unpopular war, the dominant theme of coverage was that Democrats were “on the defensive.”

Then something interesting happened: On Sunday, The New York Times reported that Gen. George Casey, the commander of American forces in Iraq, had presented to President Bush a plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Democrats were quick to point out that Casey seemed to agree with them (although CBS News' Joie Chen asserted that Casey's plan was “not a cut-and-run strategy”).

The Los Angeles Times, fervently looking for the cloud behind any Democratic silver lining, came up with this bit of insightful analysis:

Last week, Congress debated two Democratic proposals that called for Bush to begin a troop drawdown, resolutions that divided the party. Public acknowledgment of the Casey plan by administration officials could leave the Democratic Party's leaders in an even more awkward position, having backed a withdrawal plan already embraced by the White House -- in effect leaving the party with no Iraq policy distinct from the administration's as the parties head into the midterm elections.

As Greg Sargent wrote on his weblog The Horse's Mouth, “Just try to wrap your brain around that logic for a second.” Yes, it must be just like the time Bush abandoned his bid to privatize Social Security, leaving Democrats flummoxed and politically weaker because they were unable to accuse him of trying to privatize Social Security.

But here's what ABC's The Note asked:

The Note is confused: If General Casey (and President Bush) are going to do what the Democrats want anyway in terms of troop withdrawals (as Democrats are now claiming), how can they justify all this yelling about Bush not listening to the American people? Do they care more about the name calling or the policy?

Yes, you read that correctly: ABC News thinks it was Democrats who were doing too much “name calling” when it came to Iraq. But just remember: The Note is the expression of conventional wisdom among the Washington press corps. In their world, Republicans are tough, smart, and cool, and Democrats are weak, dumb, and nerdy; Republican hypocrisy just reveals the hypocrisy of Democrats; bad poll numbers for Bush only indicate a coming turnaround, and on and on. As Lapdogs author Eric Boehlert wisely noted, “The Note's definition of buzz has been whatever Beltway Republicans are chattering about. The Note has been nourished on an era of total Republican rule. It shows.”

And it was hardly just The Note. As we documented, the media's discussion of Iraq of late has been steeped in GOP talking points, including the following:

  • Republicans are “pro-military” and “support the troops,” while Democrats are “anti-military” and “attack the troops.”
  • Democrats want to “cut and run.”
  • Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.
  • Democrats are “divided” or “weak” on national security.
  • The Republicans will always win debates on national security.
  • The Republicans won the Iraq debate.

All of these ideas were repeated not just by Republican spokespeople and conservative commentators, but by allegedly neutral reporters. And if, as the media were so eager to report, the debate in Congress over the war was such a victory for the Republicans, then they should have gotten some political benefit. But that doesn't appear to be the case. The last Gallup poll before the debate showed Democrats leading Republicans on the question of which party voters would support in the upcoming midterm elections, 51 percent to 39 percent. The Gallup poll taken after the debate showed a 3-percentage-point increase in the Democratic lead, to 54-39.

The events of the past week provide one more demonstration that progressives must begin to fully appreciate the importance of the media in our political life. Look what happened: Conservatives began a coordinated attack on a news organization, and suddenly we weren't talking about Iraq or about anything else, we were actually debating whether The New York Times should be prosecuted for treason.

And journalists could barely summon the energy to defend not just their colleagues, but their profession -- let alone the citizens they are supposed to serve. At the same time that they were being subjected to this assault, they continued to view the political world through a lens created by the very people battering them mercilessly.

In recent editions of our weekly wrap-up, Jamison Foser has been making the case that, as he wrote back on May 26, “The defining issue of our time is the media.” Conservatives obviously understand this fact. Perhaps soon progressives will come to the same understanding.