October 26, 2006

Hit and Miss

by PG

Byron Calame, the current public editor (aka ombudsman) for the New York Times, seems OK except when he leans too heavily on his I'm An Old Newsman shtick. His criticism of Linda Greenhouse's Harvard speech is just, and my only change would have been to push the comparison to judges beyond this sentence, "It doesn’t seem all that different from the way judges and military officers, for instance, traditionally have been expected to exercise restraint in publicly expressing their personal views, especially about politics." Not only are judges expected to exercise restraint just to be polite, they also are called upon to recuse themselves from deciding cases in which they have publicly pre-judged the outcome. Obviously Greenhouse's objectivity isn't important as, say, the Supreme Court's, but her idea that "the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism” and "the ridiculous actual barrier [to be built between the U.S. and Mexico]" are “statements of fact” is laughable. I'm a fan of Greenhouse's work, both in the Times and her Blackmun biography, and I agree with many of her political opinions, but I can see no way to distinguish her declaration, “I really felt I owed this audience [of fellow Harvard alumni] the respect to speak from the heart,” from a similar claim that Justice Scalia was just being real with the folks in Fredericksburg, including his son who's a Roman Catholic priest there.

However, Calame's retreat from supporting the Times's article on the Bush administration's banking-data surveillance program is less laudable. The ability to admit a mistake is a rare and admirable one, but he seems inclined to think, "Gosh, that reader did make a good point in criticizing the paper; I had better do the same" without much effort to refute said point. For example,

I became embarrassed by the how-secret-is-it issue, although that isn’t a cause of my altered conclusion. My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: the Times article and headline had both emphasized that a “secret” program was being exposed. (If one sentence down in the article had acknowledged that a number of people were probably aware of the program, both the newsroom and I would have been better able to address that wave of criticism.)
"Secret" does not mean that no one is aware of it; it often means only that no one will acknowledge it. If I have a secret girlfriend, quite possibly many people are well aware that the relationship exists, yet I never admit to it. This makes it a poor secret in the sense of ensuring privacy for my affairs, but it does maintain uncertainty in others' minds that allows plausible deniability to remain. That the government was tracking bank transactions does not seem like much of a stretch for the terrorist mind, which is given to seeing conspiracy even when none exists. Anti-Jewish groups like al Qaeda probably assume the stereotype of Zionist bankers' cooperating with the government to undermine Muslims.

The government did not declare that it was conducting the surveillance, and marked it as classified and perhaps would have denied it had the question been asked of them directly. (That the Bush administration has not denied any of the Times stories regarding its surveillance indicates either more honesty than I would have credited, or a more complicated calculation that if it never denies anything, no one will know what its resources really are going toward.) Conservatives should have no difficulty with this distinction between a fact actually unknown and a fact officially shrouded, given their disdain for the notion that Valerie Plame's connection to the CIA was any secret. Sure, it might have been classified, but sheesh, didn't everyone in Washington know?

October 26, 2006 11:15 PM | TrackBack
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