A war on the press? I don't think so.

Media criticism.
Feb. 13 2007 6:27 PM

A War on the Press?

I don't think so.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

It's easy to deny that there is a war going on if nobody is shooting at you. So it should be noted that I compose this column about the alleged war on the press from the comfort of the Pressboxdome, far from the threat of prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917, or even a grand jury subpoena.

In denying the state of war observed by columnist Eric Alterman, First Amendment lawyer James C. Goodale, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others, I don't pretend that all is happy between the press and the state. The current relationship is hostile and ugly, contentious and noisy. But it's been that way for a long time.

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If the government is really "at war" with the press, why hasn't it gone after the journalists and publications that have directly and brazenly challenged its authority, publishing stories against its wishes? A genuine wartime president would have long ago shackled James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times for their December 2005 reporting on the National Security Agency's secret domestic surveillance program and keelhauled them all the way to a Gitmo for journos. Or, having missed that skirmish, why haven't the Bushies nabbed the same pair for their work on the CIA's SWIFT bank-data program, and used the Espionage Act's fine print to seize the assets of the New York Times?

A president intent on making war on the press would surely have carpet-bombed Dana Priest and the Washington Post for her secret prisons journalism. By now, Seymour M. Hersh of The New Yorker would have been executed on general principle and such national security aces as Barton Gellman, Mark Hosenball, Bob Woodward, Mark Mazzetti, Walter Pincus, and John Walcott would be locked in hotboxes.

The government growls and chest-thumps about the stories, but so far the threats have been empty (although I'm sure many reporters keep their lawyers' phone numbers in their cell phones, just in case).

The illusion of a war on the press is fed, I think, by the travesty that is the Valerie Plame investigation and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby prosecution. A dozen journalists were subpoenaed in the course of the Plame investigation, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of two who would not testify, and one of them was jailed. And this month, a gang of reporters, cowering like whipped, wet dogs, have been forced to give testimony about how they do their work at the Libby trial.

Yet Plame fallout can't be cited as examples of the government's war on the press because it was never the Bush administration's idea—or in its interests—to pursue the leaker of Plame's identity. The first installment of Frontline's "News War" series, which airs tonight, Feb. 13, should convince viewers that the Plame investigation and Libby prosecution are huge, comic accidents.

Frontline's Lowell Bergman interviews Mark Corallo, who worked for Attorney General Ashcroft's Justice Department in the opening days of the Plame investigation. He tells Bergman that he knew of Ashcroft approving only one media subpoena the whole time he worked there, that Ashcroft was "absolutely committed to not issuing one of those subpoenas" in the Plame case, and that it was unlikely that Ashcroft would have.

As Frontline accurately reports, the fuel for the journalist-subpoenaing Plame investigation came from Democrats in Congress and some members of the press. Democrats urged Ashcroft's Justice Department to recuse itself and hire a special counsel to run the investigation. When the Justice Department picked Patrick Fitzgerald to run the case, a Dec. 31, 2003, New York Times editorial titled "The Right Thing, At Last," endorsed the move without equivocation, urging that "true operational independence" be bestowed upon Fitzgerald, who must be given "the full powers of a special counsel."

This may be the first time in modern history that a newspaper called for an investigation into a leak to the press. So if the Plame case is a battle in Bush's press war, then New York Times editorialists are his shock troops.