It seems patently obvious that the effort is being fed, if not led, by the White House. All presidential administrations have their problems with the press, of course. What's alarming about the current crusade is the attacks against the act as well as the fact. Where past administrations attempted to enjoin the dissemination of a particular item or to undermine the reputation of a specific medium, publication or journalist, the present effort seeks to challenge both the function and purpose of news gathering.
Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that two reporters can be jailed for contempt for refusing to disclose sources to a grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA agent's identity to conservative columnist Robert Novak. The reporters' efforts were aimed at exploring who in the administration would jeopardize the career (if not the life) of a covert agent to further its own policy.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this case is that one of the reporters, my former colleague Judy Miller of The New York Times, never published her findings. The administration and the courts are effectively criminalizing efforts to get at the root of politically motivated criminal activity. Should they prevail, the door would be jarred open for expansive fishing expeditions into the records, notes, logs, and minds of anyone who may have had a conversation about a federal crime.
The prosecutions of Ms. Miller and Time writer Matthew Cooper are unsurprising. Bush administration officials openly ridicule "the reality-based community"-people who, as one official told journalist Ron Suskind, "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." That same contempt for truth has evinced itself in a series of administration activities. There was the confident assertion that weapons of mass destruction were a danger so imminent that immediate war against Iraq was necessary-a declaration disproved but never withdrawn. There were disclosures of pay-for-placement deals to friendly columnists and commentators to push administration policy. There was last week's revelation that a friendly "reporter" in the White House pressroom was the pseudonymous operator of Web sites for conservative causes (and gay porn).
Newspeople themselves are not blameless. Against their profession's standards, they continue to try to brand themselves and their organizations by gabbing on talk shows and public forums. Remarks by Eason Jordan at the World Economic Forum contributed to the CNN executive's ouster, and even Judy Miller, against all logic, vented recently about the Iraqi elections back on MSNBC's "Hardball," with the embarrassing Chris Matthews. In the public's mind, such ill-advised auto-advertising erases the line between news and opinion and the boundary between journalist and celebrity. "It's bad for reporters" and bad for their companies, Times public advocate Dan Okrent says.
The stakes are high. As people in power try to eliminate the distinction between truth and belief-and as newspeople unwittingly aid them, even as they are under assault-we grow unable to withstand the predations of power. A society that learns there's no difference between The Washington Post and Fox News-or between "Intelligent Design" and Darwin's Theory of Evolution -is a society unable to protect itself.
Randy Rothenberg can be reached at Rothenberg_randall@bah.com