The Times Remembers Where Its True Loyalties Lie -- With the Public

Here's a change. After a year of regularly hauling the New York Times and its editors to the cyber woodshed for acting more like an arm of the Bush administration than the paper of record, I'm turning on the computer to -- wait for it -- sing the praises of Bill Keller and the gang on West 43rd.

With the Fraternal Order of Secret Keepers occupying the White House, a Fourth Estate that acts like a bunch of eunuchs is especially dangerous. So it was nice to see the Gray Lady show some balls in disclosing that CIA and Treasury officials had secretly been taking a look at the extensive international banking data kept by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (aka SWIFT).

Predictably, the no-news-is-good-news crowd at the White House immediately set out to SWIFTboat the Times. Bush called the disclosure "disgraceful." Cheney was even more indignant. Recalling that the Times had also disclosed the NSA wiretap program (albeit a year late -- more on that in a moment), the VP huffed: 'The New York Times has now twice -- on two separate occasions -- disclosed programs; both times they had been asked not to publish those stories by senior administration officials. They went ahead anyway." The nerve! How dare the press ignore senior administration officials!?

Cheney was especially incensed that the Times had been awarded a Pulitzer for its NSA wiretapping story, calling it "doubly disturbing" and adding, "I think that's a disgrace." (With both Bush and Cheney using it, "disgrace" obviously tested through the roof in Karl Rove's messaging focus group). Cheney also claimed that the secret programs had been "successful in helping break up terrorist plots." Care to tell us exactly which plots those were, Mr. Vice President? (I'm pretty sure they would have held a Rose Garden ceremony if that was actually the case).

For his part, Tony Snow whipped out the "time of war" card, saying, without even a hint of backup that "the publication of these [stories] could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans." But isn't the war on terror, according to the president, a war we can't win, and therefore a war without end? So, by Snow's reckoning, journalists will have to play by those special "time of war" rules for eternity?

Luckily, Keller and company were having none of it. In a letter to Times readers posted on the paper's website, Keller got back in touch with his inner journalist: "Editors start from the premise that citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and complicated news, and that the more they know the better they will be able to make their views known to their elected officials. Our default position -- our job -- is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair and accurate...The question we start with as journalists is not 'why publish?' but 'why would we withhold information of significance?'"

This is a far cry from Keller's ludicrous explanation back in December that the Times had sat on the NSA spy story for a year because the White House "had assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions."

Back then, the Times had bought into what Keller called the administration's "convincing national security argument" and didn't publish the bombshell story until after the '04 election -- an election that might have turned out differently had the public known that the president was spying on Americans without a court order.

This time, Keller noted that "the government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest" and ran the story well ahead of Election Day 2006.

It's nice to see that even a MSM leviathan like the Times can learn from its mistakes and course-correct.

It's not exactly a newsflash that the Bushies would like to keep everything other than Valerie Plame's CV wrapped in the political equivalent of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak -- hidden from the prying eyes of the pesky public. As Bill Moyers has put it: "There has been nothing in our time like the Bush administration's obsession with secrecy."

This is why an aggressive press is more vital to the well-being of our democracy than ever.

As Dr. Steven Taylor at poliblogger nailed it: "It seems quite obvious that the administration will not submit to oversight without this kind of public attention. The way we (and seemingly the Congress as well) have found out about the NSA wiretap program, the NSA phone records program and now this program has been through media revelations."

To this list of things we wouldn't have known about if it weren't for the media, you can add the CIA's secret black op prison system (Washington Post), the horrors of Haditha (Time) and Abu Ghraib (New Yorker), Bush's unparalleled use of 750 signing statements to circumvent Congressional legislation -- including the ban on torture (Boston Globe), that Alberto Gonzales found the Geneva conventions "obsolete" and "quaint" (Newsweek) the Abramoff-DeLay connection (Washington Post), the details of Cheney's involvement with Plamegate (Murray Waas), and the stunning news that 50,000 Iraqis have been killed since Shock and Awe (Los Angeles Times).

No one -- not even the mouth-breathers like Peter King calling for the Times to be prosecuted -- can really believe that the country would be better off not knowing these things.