[Michael Kinsley joins us with a thought that he'd rather not hold for print]
Newspaper editorials don’t get much attention these days, and most are written as if they don’t even want attention. But there were two screaming for attention yesterday.
An extraordinarily vindictive editorial in The New York Times not only welcomed the tough sentence of 2 1/2 years in prison for Scooter Libby, but called for Libby to be locked up right away, rather than waiting for his appeals to be exhausted. Why the rush? The Times seemed worried that President Bush might pardon Libby before he has a chance to get raped in prison. OK, there was no mention of rape. But the anticipation of seeing a Bush official off to prison drooled off the page.
Libby, formerly Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, was convicted of lying to the FBI and a grand jury. These were not any old lies. Earlier Times editorials denounced them as “disinformation for propaganda purposes”– and as part of an administration “smear campaign” against a critic, Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
For anyone else, a vindictive desire to see Libby in jail is perfectly reasonable. (Although to me 2 1/2 years seems excessive. In fact, I’ll just alienate the blogosphere right here and say that in my opinion a huge fine and a sobering month or two would be sufficient.) But for the New York Times to bring such venom to the table is strange indeed.
The essential mechanism of the administration’s smear campaign was talking off-the-record to reporters. When, in an earlier chapter of this melodrama, Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail rather than tell the grand jury who her sources were in the very same smear campaign, there was no talk of disinformation. Rather, the Times editorialized that a reporter’s right to publish information and not say where it comes from is “one of the pillars of the nation’s freedoms.”
Neither Libby nor anyone else has been charged with the original crime of talking out of school about Wilson’s wife, Valerie, the CIA operative. Libby’s conviction is for the coverup. But , as the Times emphasized yesterday,it is the connection between Libby’s lies and the larger ball of wax that makes the lies especially scandalous and worthy of punishment. So the question remains: If Libby and the others who told reporters about Valerie Wilson and later lied about it were engaged in a dastardly smear campaign, why aren’t the reporters they talked to considered to be dupes or even accessories? And if the reporters are actually First Amendment heroes for listening to the lies and in most cases publishing them, why does Scooter Libby belong in jail?
According to the High Church First Amendment theology to which the Times subscribes, a reporter is supposed to protect the identity of a source even if the source turns out to have lied. So the Times would never do anything to help expose and bring down the dastardly smear campaign, which makes its thirst for Libby’s blood even stranger.
The other extraordinary editorial was in the Wall Street Journal, also yesterday. It was a long disquisition on “independence” occasioned by the prospect of being owned by Rupert Murdoch. This editorial was pugnacious, like almost all Wall Street Journal editorials . As usual, it made up in subtext and innuendo for what its surface argument lacked in logic. It lost no time in noting that the Bancroft family that owns the Journal is more “hands-off” than either the Grahams of the Washington Post or –in spades–the Sulzbergers of the New York Times. (“Lost no time” is a Journal -like formulation, implying unseemly haste to do something bad . I n fact, I have no idea how much time it took to make this point.) As for a non-family-owned media company like Gannet, its “make-no-waves corporate ethic turns nearly all of its editorial pages into mush.” So there!
The editors praise themselves for various examples of independence-such as opposing US entry into World War II until “the day war began” and withstanding pressure from “more than one liberal” to ease off of their relentless campaign of allegations against Bill Clinton. What even two or more liberals could have done to do to pressure the Wall Street Journal, the editorial doesn’t say. But certainly if independence means being able to say whatever you want, no matter how dishonest or scurrilous or unfair, then the Journal editorial page evidently has it.
The pressing question, though, is not how the Bancrofts have treated the paper, but how Murdoch would, or should. The concept of independence is a strange one. In any other industry, the notion that the owner should recuse himself from the actual running of the business wouldn’t even qualify as a high-minded aspiration. This is capitalism: why should he? The editorial implies an answer: because it’s good business. The late editor Bob Bartley apparently used to say that the Journal’s editorial page is the only one that “sells papers.” Maybe that’s true, though it’s not quite like saying that the page is profitable. But let’s give it to them. The Journal editorial page sells papers because it says what its readers in the business world like to hear. Does that make it more or less independent than if it only had to please one person?
Anyway, as whoever wrote that editorial well knows, it is not the Journal’s editorial page that needs protection from Murdoch. It is the news sections that need to be scared. The most remarkable form of independence at the Wall Street Journal isn’t journalists from the owners, it’s the news side from the editorial writers, and vice versa. A word or two about how the news needs independence-needs it more than editorials, in fact, since editorials by definition have a point of view-would have been gracious. But no.