Saturday's Keller Op-ed Reveals Sad State of Our Daily Conversation

New York Times editor Bill Keller and L.A. Times editor Dean Baquet have jointly published an Op-ed in today's Times about their publication of stories on the U.S.'s secret financial surveillance program. Read it and you'll see that the entire piece is strikingly devoted to making the case that in general the two editors take decisions about whether to publish such information very, very seriously, that they do indeed care about this country's national security. At the same time, little to none of their piece is devoted to a substantive defense of their decision to publish in this particular instance.

Keller and Baquet aren't to blame for this. Rather, the tack they had to take speaks to something larger -- it says something very sad about the degraded state of the daily conversation in this country. Indeed, today's Op-ed provides as good a moment as any to try and make sense of the larger picture. It's bad and it's ugly.

Those making the case against the New York Times for publishing the story had the choice of proceeding down one of two rhetorical tracks. They could have simply argued that for various reasons Keller's decision to publish was the wrong one, while allowing for the fact that Keller and his colleagues made a genuine good-faith effort to weigh potential risk against the public's right to know. I think Keller made the right decision; still, reasonable debate is certainly possible on both sides of this question. But the paper's critics also had a second option, a second rhetorical track: They could go well beyond arguing that the decision was the wrong one, and depict the Times has having treacherous motives -- as harboring a secret desire to undermine both the Bush administration and national security.

The reason Keller and Baquet are being forced to spend so much time protesting that they take such decisions seriously in general -- as opposed to substantively defending this specific decision -- is simple: The overwhelming majority of New York Times critics recklessly stampeded down the second track, ascribing treacherous motives to the paper. It's impossible to overstate how wildly irrational this argument is. It is profoundly demented. It has no basis in reality whatsoever. Yet it was repeated again and again, for days on end, in one forum after another. Some of the accusations, of course, came from avowedly conservative quarters. The National Review accused the paper of being a "recidivist offender in what has become a relentless effort to undermine the intelligence-gathering without which a war against embedded terrorists cannot be won." News Max tarred the Times as "Osama bin Laden's most reliable informant."

But the most extraordinary thing about this whole sorry spectacle wasn't the fact that these charges were completely insane. No, the really amazing thing was that the big news orgs happily gave a platform to those making these allegations, thus giving them a patina of respectibility and ensuring that they reached large audiences of people who don't get their news exclusively from right wing sources. Bizarre charges of treason and surreal talk of imprisonment filled the airways. A talk show host who said she'd happily see Keller hauled off to the "gas chamber" was granted the right to make her case on MSNBC. And on and on. The result of this legitimacy? Well-meaning people across the country took seriously the paranoid and delusional notion that the media is treasonous, forcing Keller and Baquet to defend not just the particulars of this specific news judgment, but their motives and patriotism, too.

Here's the situation in a nutshell. Those hurling these reckless charges of treason at the Times have a very specific agenda: First, they want to reunite the Republican base, which is fracturing because of the Iraq war, the GOP's betrayal of various conservative principles, and the fact that Bush's Presidency is so obviously a failure that all but the most diehard supporters can see it. And second, they want to convince great masses of people that there's a traitor in our midst that would weaken America -- an obvious ploy designed to divert attention from the catastrophic failures of the Bush administration, the Republican Party and, most important, the discredited ideas which drive them. At bottom this is all about salvaging a political movement that's in real trouble.

The funny part about all this is that the people trying to depict the media as traitorous are the ones who are really weakening the country. They're dumbing it down and desensitizing people to hysterical accusations. Yet no matter how transparent the agenda of these critics, no matter how obvious their goal of distracting the electorate with "enemy within" rhetoric, the big news orgs continue to help them legitimize their cynical efforts to drum up hysteria.

As a result these critics and commentators just might succeed. That is, if they haven't in some measure already succeeded.

Adapted from a post at The Horse's Mouth.