The government's current war with the free press

The watchdog role of the media is a crucial restraint on executive abuse of power during the war on terror.

In recent speeches at Republican fundraisers, President Bush has taken to criticizing the press for baring government secrets.

The outgoing secretary of the Treasury, John Snow, in what may have been his last official act, wrote to The New York Times that in exposing the monitoring of bank transfers, it had undermined a successful counterterrorism program.

A House resolution, passed by a party line vote, called on the media to safeguard classified programs.

The government has discovered what governments have discovered before, that an undercurrent of hostility toward the news media runs through the country and that there could be political advantage in campaigning against the press in general.

The champion press hater, of course, was President Nixon, who told his staff that the press is the enemy, and he proceeded to declare his own private war against the media.

In 1969, he had a speech written by speechwriter Pat Buchanan denouncing the media as a "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men." And he gave it to Vice President Spiro Agnew to deliver. That speech is best remembered today for the line contributed by another speechwriter, William Safire, about "nattering nabobs of negativism."

It is not clear that the public hates the press as much as officialdom would like to think.

A recent Pew Research report found that public attitudes toward the press have been on a downward track for years. Growing numbers of people questioned the news media's patriotism and fairness. And yet most Americans continue to say they like mainstream news outlets.

And so, as The Christian Science Monitor headlined the other day, "Amid war on terror, a war with the press."

You would not expect that I, as a journalist, would exhibit total neutrality in such a war. And so let me quote Justice Potter Stewart in his opinion in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971: "In the absence of governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the area of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry.... Without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people."

That remains true, even when Mr. Bush proclaims a state of war with the terrorists.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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