Jay Rosen’s From Judith Miller to Julian Assange pinpoints when the Paper of Record switched its mission statement–from reporting the news to parroting the government line, without skepticism, without verification.
For the American press that still looks to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers for inspiration, and that considers itself a check on state power, the hour of its greatest humiliation can, I think, be identified with some precision: it was on Sunday, September 8, 2002.
On that morning the New York Times published a now notorious story, reported by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller, in which nameless Bush Administration officials claimed that Iraq was trying to buy the kind of aluminum tubes necessary to build a nuclear centrifuge.
Rosen weaves in material from “Now they tell us,” Michael Massing’s 2004 analysis of “the nadir” (Rosen’s phrase) in the New York Review of Books, to demonstrate just how momentous that Sunday morning was:
We know from retrospective accounts that the Bush White House had already decided to go to war. We know from the Downing Street Memo that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” We know that the Bush forces had decided to rev up their sales campaign that week because ”from a marketing point of view you don’t introduce new products in August,” as chief of staff Andrew Card brazenly put it. We know that the appearance of the tubes story in the Times is what allowed Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice to run with it on the Sunday shows, because without that they would have been divulging classified information and flouting their own rules. We also know that the tubes story was wrong: they weren’t for centrifuges. And yet it was coming from the very top of the professional pyramid, the New York Times.
.. The government had closed circle on the press, laundering its own manipulated intelligence through the by-lines of two experienced reporters, smuggling the deed past layers of editors, and then marching it like a trained dog onto the Sunday talk shows to perform in a lurid doomsday act.
In retrospect, it looks awfully bad, but it’s significant that the Times has put a lot of effort into examining its own behavior, and is only a little bit sorry.
Below, a 14-minute video in which Rosen expands on the print piece (nice title, btw):
As for the events of the past two weeks, it appears the Times fancies it’s doing something qualitatively different from what the government is going after Assange for. Not everyone agrees. The ubiquitous and odious Joe Lieberman has already floated the idea of prosecuting the Times:
“I’m not here to make a final judgment on that, but to me the New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship,” he said. “Whether they’ve committed a crime, I think that bears a very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department.”
In contrast to the Times’ obliviousness, the Guardian’s Friday editorial recognizes the stakes. Although the focus here is on a free Internet, the bottom line for a nominally democratic society is the same.
In times when big business and governments attempt to monitor and control everything, there is a need as never before for an internet that remains a free and universal form of communication. WikiLeaks’ chief crime has been to speak truth to power. What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom of the internet. All the rest is a sideshow distracting attention from the real battle that is being fought. We should all keep focus on the true target.
Rosen makes the connection in his conclusion, quoting Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, a Brit who evokes high (and apparently bygone) American standards of governance and transparency:
“Accountability can only default to disclosure. As Jefferson remarked, the press is the last best hope when democratic oversight fails.” But at the nadir the last best hope failed, too. When that happens accountability defaults to extreme disclosure, which is where we are today. The institutional press isn’t driving it; the wilds of the Internet are. To understand Julian Assange and the weird reactions to him in the American press we need to tell a story that starts with Judy Miller and ends with Wikileaks