Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
June 26, 2006
Back during the 1790s under the Alien and Sedition Acts, then during the Civil War and again during World War I, the government prosecuted editors.
It’s not a practice that thrills me, as an editor.
Nor should it thrill you, for that matter, because it’s about as blatant a violation of the First Amendment as there is.
But that didn’t stop Representative Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, from wanting to get the cuffs out on the editors of The New York Times.
“We’re at war,” he said, “and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous.”
King said he would ask Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to “begin an investigation and prosecution of The New York Times—the reporters, the editors, and the publisher.”
Dick Cheney also dumped on the Times, saying that “some of the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs.” This most offensive Vice President said, “That offends me.”
Taking his cue from Cheney, as usual, Bush on Monday said, “For people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.” The revelation, he added, “makes it harder to win the war on terror.”
And Gonzales himself, who is supposed to be the leading law enforcement officer of the United States and is sworn to uphold the Constitution, has also been warning ominously about prosecuting journalists.
What King, Cheney, Bush, Gonzales, and many rightwing pundits don’t seem to appreciate is that we, the American people, need to have a free press to check the excesses of government.
Such a free press has never been needed more so than today, when the Bush Administration has taken excess to the nth degree.
To my eyes, The New York Times has not been aggressive enough. It held the NSA spying story for more than a year, and it let Judith Miller cozy up to the Iraq War cheerleaders and placed some of their propaganda on the front page.
“Our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough,” Bill Keller, editor of the Times, acknowledged in a letter to readers on June 25.
He also revealed just how solicitous the Times has become of the Administration’s views.
“Our decision to publish the story of the Administration’s penetration of the international banking system followed weeks of discussion between Administration officials and The Times, not only the reporter who wrote the story but senior editors, including me,” Keller wrote. “We listened patiently and attentively. . . . We weighed most heavily the Administration’s concern that describing this program would endanger it.”
But the President doesn’t deserve a seat at the editorial meetings of The New York Times—or any other newspaper. That is not his place. He is commander in chief, not editor in chief.
It is up to reporters, and editors, and publishers to decide what is news—not the branch of government they are supposed to be covering.
Once the President takes over that job, the fourth estate has lost its function.
So before Gonzales, Cheney, Bush, and King throw Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger Jr in the hoosegow, they might want to consult a copy the Constitution, if they can still find one lying around.