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All the News That's Fit to Bully

TWO weeks and counting, and the editor of The New York Times still has not been sentenced to the gas chamber. What a bummer for one California radio talk-show host, Melanie Morgan, who pronounced The Times guilty of treason and expressly endorsed that punishment. She and the rest of the get-the-press lynch mob are growing restless, wondering why newspapers haven't been prosecuted under the Espionage Act. "If Bush believes what he is saying," taunted Pat Buchanan, "why does he not do his duty as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States?"

Here's why. First, there is no evidence that the Times article on tracking terrorist finances either breached national security or revealed any "secrets" that had not already been publicized by either the administration or Swift, the Belgian financial clearinghouse enlisted in the effort. Second, the legal bar would be insurmountable: even Gabriel Schoenfeld, who first floated the idea of prosecuting The Times under the Espionage Act in an essay in Commentary, told The Nation this month that the chance of it happening was .05 percent.

But the third and most important explanation has nothing to do with the facts of the case or the law and everything to do with politics. For all the lynch mob's efforts to single out The Times — "It's the old trick, go after New York, go after big, ethnic New York," as Chris Matthews put it — three papers broke Swift stories on their front pages. Even in this bash-the-press environment, the last spectacle needed by a president with an approval rating in the 30's is the national firestorm that would greet a doomed Justice Department prosecution of The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times.

The administration has a more insidious game plan instead: it has manufactured and milked this controversy to reboot its intimidation of the press, hoping journalists will pull punches in an election year. There are momentous stories far more worrisome to the White House than the less-than-shocking Swift program, whether in the chaos of Anbar Province or the ruins of New Orleans. If the press muzzles itself, its under-the-radar self-censorship will be far more valuable than a Nixonesque frontal assault that ends up as a 24/7 hurricane veering toward the Supreme Court.

Will this plan work? It did after 9/11. The chilling words articulated at the get-go by Ari Fleischer (Americans must "watch what they say") carried over to the run-up to the Iraq war, when the administration's W.M.D. claims went unchallenged by most news organizations. That this strategy may work again can be seen in the fascinating escalation in tactics by the Bush White House's most powerful not-so-secret agent in the press itself, the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Journal is not Fox News or an idle blogger or radio bloviator. It's the establishment voice of the party in power. The infamous editorial it ran on June 30 ("Fit and Unfit to Print"), an instant classic, doesn't just confer its imprimatur on the administration's latest crusade to conflate aggressive journalism with treason, but also ups the ante.

The editorial was ostensibly a frontal attack on The Times, accusing its editors of not believing America is "really at war" and of exercising bad faith in running its report on the Swift operation. But an attack on The Times by The Journal's editorial page is a shrug-inducing dog-bites-man story; the paper's conservative editorialists have long dueled with a rival whose editorials usually argue the other side. (And sometimes the Times opinion writers gleefully return the fire.) What was groundbreaking and unsettling about the Journal editorial was that it besmirched the separately run news operation of The Journal itself.

By any standard, The Journal is one of the great newspapers in the world, whether you agree with its editorials or not. As befits a great newspaper, its journalists are fearless in pursuit of news, as tragically exemplified by Daniel Pearl. Like reporters at The Times, those at The Journal operate independently of the paper's opinion pages. Witness The Journal's schism during the Enron scandal. Its editorial page belittled the scandal's significance most of the way, resisting even mild criticisms of Enron (it was "partly a victim of its own success") until it filed for bankruptcy. The dearly departed Ken Lay, after all, was the leading Bush financial patron; to the Journal editorialists, the "Clintonian moral climate" of the 1990's was a root cause of Enron's problems. Meanwhile, The Journal's investigative reporters had gone their own way months earlier, helping unearth the scandal. So much so that Mr. Lay tried to argue his innocence in the spring by testifying that a "witch hunt" by the paper's reporters had more to do with his company's demise than he did.

It was a similarly top-flight Journal reporter, Glenn Simpson, who wrote his paper's Swift story. But the Journal editorial page couldn't ignore him if it was attacking The Times for publishing its Swift scoop on the same day. So instead it maligned him by echoing Tony Snow's official White House line: The Journal was merely following The Times once it knew that The Times would publish anyway. As if this weren't insulting enough, the editorial suggested that the Treasury Department leaked much of the story to The Journal and that a Journal reporter could be relied upon to write a "straighter" account more to the government's liking than that of a Times reporter.

This version of events does not jibe with an e-mail sent by The Journal's own Washington bureau chief, Gerald Seib, on the day the Swift articles ran. "I was surprised to see your news story about the New York Times 'scoop' on the government program to monitor international bank transactions," Mr. Seib wrote to Joe Strupp of the trade publication Editor & Publisher. "As you could tell from the lead story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal today, we had the same story. Moreover, we posted it online early last evening, virtually at the same time The Times did. In sum, we and The Times were both chasing the story and crossed the finish line at the same time — and well ahead of The Los Angeles Times, which posted its story well after ours went up."

In other words, The Journal's journalists were doing their job with their usual professionalism. But by twisting this history, the Journal editorial page was sending an unsubtle shot across the bow, warning those in the newsroom (and every other newsroom) that their patriotism would be impugned, as The Times's had been, if they investigated administration conduct in wartime in ways that displeased the White House.

Any fan of The Journal's news operation expects it to stand up to this bullying. But the nastiness of the Journal editorial is a preview of what we can expect from the administration and all of its surrogates this year. In "The One Percent Doctrine," the revelatory book about wartime successes and failures now (happily) outpacing Ann Coulter at Amazon.com, the former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind explains just how tough it is for a reporter in this climate: "to report about national affairs and, especially, national security in this contentious period demands at least a spoonful of disobedience — a countermeasure to strong assurances by those in power that the obedient will be rewarded or, at the very least, have nothing to worry about."

The trouble is we have plenty to worry about. For all the airy talk about the First Amendment, civil liberties and Thomas Jefferson in the debate over the Swift story and the National Security Agency surveillance story before it, there's an urgent practical matter at stake, too. Now more than ever, after years of false reports of missions accomplished, the voters need to do what Congress has failed to do and hold those who mismanage America's ever-expanding war accountable for their performance in real time.

As George Will wrote in March, all three members of the "axis of evil" — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — are "more dangerous than they were when that phrase was coined in 2002." So is Afghanistan, which is spiraling into Taliban-and-drug-lord anarchy, without nearly enough troops or other assistance to secure it. On the first anniversary of the London bombings, and on a surging wave of new bin Laden and al-Zawahiri videos, the two foremost Qaeda experts outside government, Peter Bergen and the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer, both sounded alarms that contradict the insistent administration refrain that the terrorists are on the run.

We can believe instead, if we choose to, that all is well and that the press shouldn't question our government's account of how it is winning the war brilliantly at every turn. (The former C.I.A. analytical chief, Jami Miscik, decodes this game in "The One Percent Doctrine": the administration tells "only half the story, the part that makes us look good," and keeps the other half classified.) We can believe that reporters, rather than terrorists, are the villains. We can debate whether traitorous editors should be sent to gas chambers or merely tarred and feathered.

Or we can hope that the press will rise to the occasion and bring Americans more news we can use, not less, at a perilous time when every piece of information counts.

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