The Press and Patriotism
The White House is upset about the Newsweek story by Michael Isikoff and John Barry that a copy of the Koran had been flushed down a toilet at the Guantanamo detention center. After the report led to protests, rioting, and numerous deaths in the Muslim world, the magazine said it was retracting the story, whose source had backed away from his first account.
Its a little late for the White House to worry about bad PR in the Muslim world now. U.S. foreign policy, two recent wars, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo itself have already had their effects on Americas reputation in the region. Most Muslims think of us as the enemy. Are they wrong?
People are always quick to believe the worst about their enemies. In wartime they dont wait for confirmation of rumors of even the worst atrocities. Given what American interrogators have done in the past to provoke and insult Muslim prisoners, the Newsweek story seemed plausible even to Americans.
The White House is being disingenuous when it affects indignation at the very idea that Americans might abuse the Koran. Once again, its trying to redirect passions against the news media as a distraction from the Iraq war itself. Now its also demanding that Newsweek repair the damage it says the magazine has done.
But the Bush administration wont even estimate the damage it has itself done to our national reputation. It might start by (for example) telling us approximately how many Iraqi noncombatants have been killed in the war. Then it might consider whether making bitter enemies is the natural price of making war.
Even if the Newsweek story were true, observes the New York Post, printing it would give aid and comfort to the enemy. Thats what the White House wants to hear: even telling the truth is unpatriotic. Candor in wartime is treason. Thats what giving aid and comfort to the enemy implies. The press should publish only facts that support the government in its war effort. Loose lips sink ships, and so forth.
What does the phrase aid and comfort mean? It appears in the body of the unamended U.S. Constitution; unless carefully defined, it can easily become a rubber phrase. Does it mean intentional and material assistance to declared enemies? Or can it be stretched to mean even revealing certain facts that might embarrass the government?
If the latter, is that meaning superseded by the freedom of speech [and] of the press in the First Amendment? Just what did the First Amendment amend, anyway? Did it change the meaning of what had gone before?
If we merely mine the Constitution for convenient slogans, without bothering to ask how its parts are related to each other, theres no limit to what it can authorize (or prohibit). We can wind up reaching conclusions as rabid as those of the aforementioned Post, which is so pro-war it seems willing to curtail press freedom, including its own. More liberal (but in their way equally rabid) papers take freedom of the press to be an absolute.
If we have to choose between these extremes, we should prefer the one that gives the government least power over us. In this case, the liberal side is right. Unless we are free to criticize the government, we are not its masters but its slaves. Jefferson said that it would be better to have newspapers without government than government without newspapers.
The notion that the press is a fourth branch of government is a particularly insidious cliché. It implies that the press should have some share in power, and it invites the three real branches of government to control it as they are supposed to check and balance each other.
The press isnt always a good thing, but it is sometimes a dangerous thing, and its danger is multiplied when its controlled by the government. And this danger is always most acute during wartime, when the press feels pressure to be loyal.
Like right now.
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