The Philadelphia Inquirer's decision to give a monthly column to John Yoo -- author of several "torture memos" offering legal rationales for the Bush administration's abusive interrogations -- is (pick your term): Tone-deaf? Crazy? Morally dubious? Newspapers have made a lot of questionable decisions in recent years, some perhaps unavoidable, some true whoppers. But this is just flat-out wrong.
The reason was predictable. Harold Jackson, the Inquirer's editorial editor told the New York Times that Yoo was hired for ideological balance: "'There was a conscious effort on our part to counter some of the criticism of The Inquirer as being a knee-jerk liberal publication,' Mr. Jackson said. 'We made a conscious effort to add some conservative voices to our mix.'"
Many newspapers and other traditional media outlets, fearful of the "liberal bias" charge and watching their audience disappear, have spent the past decade trying to build their credibility with conservatives. There's nothing wrong with that per se -- they are run mostly by liberals, and we need conservative voices in the political debate. But those efforts went awry during the Bush administration. Confronted by an White House that was wildly overreaching on presidential power, surveillance, torture and the politicization of basic governance, most media lost their bearings. They treated these things as normal, if controversial, activities of government.
Fortunately, the political system self-corrected. But the media's problems remain. Here is part of of Jackson's explanation for Yoo's hiring:
He's a Philadelphian, and very knowledgeable about the legal subjects he discusses in his commentaries. Our readers have been able to get directly from Mr. Yoo his thoughts on a number of subjects concerning law and the courts, including measures taken by the White House post-9/11. That has promoted further discourse, which is the objective of newspaper commentary.
But other providing a valuable forum for self-justification, I don't understand what the op-ed page gains with Yoo. There are plenty of talented conservative writers out there. Yoo's debut column is undistinguished conservative boilerplate.
The only reason Yoo is prominent enough to write a column in the Inquirer is because of his work in the White House Office of Legal Counsel. Hiring him is thus is an implicit endorsement of the legitimacy the legal opinions he crafted there. But those opinions are legally suspect and morally repugnant. Yoo is an advocate of a questionable legal theory of nearly unlimited presidential power, and his memos were instrumental in providing legal cover for techniques that were, by any commonsense interpretation of the word, torture.
Yoo might be a war criminal. At the very least, Inquirer editors should engage that issue directly. Simply hiring him says: we don't think so. This is an assent to the dangerous notion that if the U.S. government did it, no matter how reprehensible it might be, it must have some legitimacy. That's sad -- and not part of the American journalistic tradition I know.