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MAX BOOT

Loose lips win Pulitzers

Four of the prizes honored Bush-bashing and leaking secrets. How is that good?

April 26, 2006|MAX BOOT | MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

ON JUNE 7, 1942, shortly after the Battle of Midway, the Chicago Tribune carried a scoop: "Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea." The story, written by a correspondent who had seen intelligence reports left in an officer's cabin, reported that the U.S. knew in advance the composition of the Japanese fleet. It didn't say where this information came from, but senior officers privy to the U.S. success in breaking Japanese codes were apoplectic at this security breach. The Justice Department convened a grand jury to consider whether to charge the Tribune and its flamboyant owner, editor and publisher, Col. Robert McCormick, with a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.

No charges were brought, in part because military officials were unwilling to share classified information about intelligence gathering. But the Chicago Tribune was reviled by other journalists for betraying national security, and no other publication followed up its revelation.

Poor Col. McCormick. He was a man before his time. Today, he would have been hailed as a 1st Amendment hero, and his newspaper would have been showered with accolades. That, at least, is the only conclusion one can draw from this year's Pulitzer Prizes, which reflect a startling degree of animus toward the commander in chief in wartime.

It is hard to see how media apologists can deny their political bias when no fewer than four prizes were given at least in part for Bush-bashing. These included awards to Mike Luckovich, the left-wing cartoonist of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who routinely portrays President Bush as a malevolent dolt, and Robin Givhan, the catty fashion critic of the Washington Post, who devoted an entire column to ridiculing Vice President Dick Cheney's attire at an Auschwitz ceremony.

There's nothing wrong with caustic criticism, but two of the award winners went further, into areas that may hamper our battle against Islamist terrorism. The Washington Post's Dana Priest won a prize for revealing the existence of secret CIA-operated prisons in Eastern Europe, and the New York Times' James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won for revealing the existence of a secret program to intercept communications between terrorists abroad and their domestic contacts.

The full repercussions of these security breaches remain unknown because, just as in 1942, intelligence officers are loath to publicly reveal the harm done to their activities. But there is no doubt that these were among the government's most tightly held secrets and that, despite personal pleas from Bush, both newspapers decided to publish them anyway -- to the approbation of their peers.

This would seem to lend support to the more overwrought critics on the right who imagine that the media are dominated by an anti-American cabal. Having written for major newspapers for years, I have never found any Al Qaeda moles in the newsroom. What I have found is that journalists feel more bound by their duty to their profession than to their country and that their highest professional calling, as they see it, is to preserve a halo of "objectivity" by not choosing sides in any controversy.

No one working for the mainstream media today would refer, as Ernie Pyle did during World War II, to "our soldiers," "our offensive," "our predicament." Today it's "American soldiers," "the military offensive" and (most damning of all) "the president's predicament" -- as if this were Bush's war, not ours. Just as newsies no longer identify in print with our troops, so they are careful to use impartial language about our enemies. Reuters has gone so far as to all but ban the use of "terrorist," which is considered too judgmental.

An unwillingness to play favorites makes sense when reporting on most topics. Mainstream reporters shouldn't choose between Republicans and Democrats or Microsoft and its critics (though in practice they usually do). But is studied neutrality really the right posture when covering a battle against monsters who fly hijacked aircraft into office buildings?

Los Angeles Times media columnist Tim Rutten, in defending the Pulitzers, claimed that critics "don't want an unbiased news media, they want a press that reflects their bias."

Right. I want journalists to cover the present struggle as a fight between good and evil. And when the good guys -- that would be U.S. officials -- say that certain revelations would help the bad guys, I want them to be given the benefit of the doubt. So, I suspect, do most Americans.

The problem with the mainstream media -- and a big part of why their audience is declining -- is that this is seen as a "bias" to be resisted at all costs.

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