Most major American newspaper editorial boards have remained silent on NY Times bank record story
Research ››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER
As numerous Bush administration officials, congressional Republicans, and conservative media figures continue to attack The New York Times and other newspapers for their decision to publicly disclose the Treasury Department bank-tracking program, major U.S. newspapers' editorial boards have largely remained silent on the issue. According to a Media Matters for America review, 15 newspapers -- not including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which also initially reported the program -- have so far editorialized either in support of the papers' decision to run the story or against the criticism they received for doing so.
On June 23, several media outlets, including The New York Times, detailed a Treasury Department program designed to monitor international financial transactions for terrorist activity. According to the Times article, shortly after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration tapped into a vast database of international financial transactions maintained by a banking consortium known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) in order to "trac[e] transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda." As numerous Bush administration officials, congressional Republicans, and conservative media figures continue to attack the Times, primarily over the report of the Treasury Department bank-tracking program, major U.S. newspapers' editorial boards have largely remained silent on the issue. According to a Media Matters for America review of the "Major Newspapers"  database at Nexis (consisting of 50 U.S. papers), The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times, 15 newspapers -- not including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which also initially reported the program -- have so far editorialized either in support of the papers' decision to run the story or against the criticism they received for doing so. The Washington Times and the Journal -- which also filed a report (subscription required) on the program on June 23 -- editorialized against The New York Times' decision to publish its story on the program.
While both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have since published editorials defending their decisions to reveal the details of the program, the editorial boards of only 17 (including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times) of the country's 50 most-widely read newspapers have published editorials supporting The New York Times (and other media outlets that initially reported the program) or condemning the criticism they have received for disclosing the program:
- The first widely distributed newspaper to voice its support for the program's disclosure was The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. In a June 25 editorial, The Plain Dealer applauded news organizations' decision to publish the story, asserting that "it's fair to ask why the authorities failed to seek formal approval of the initiative. The administration's record provides an obvious answer: When it comes to fighting terror, President Bush believes he can set and ignore rules at will."
- In a June 27 editorial titled "Treason?" the Chicago Tribune defended "the Times and other papers," stating that th Tribune's "overwhelming belief ... is that the greater good is served when there's a free flow of information so that people can make their own decisions about their government."
- In a June 27 editorial, New York's Newsday stated that "the newspapers that published the story -- The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal -- did the right thing." Newsday asserted that the Treasury Department's financial monitoring program "was conducted with no outside oversight and with the bare minimum of Congressional involvement." The editorial continued, "That's the same way Bush operated in allowing the National Security Agency to monitor overseas phone calls and e-mail, and to scour phone records in search of suspicious calling patterns. For snooping to be effective, some secrecy is required. But finding the proper, delicate balance between privacy and the need to track terrorists is too important to be left to the White House alone."
- Addressing the criticism directed at The New York Times for the program's revelation, in a June 27 editorial, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that "[i]n the Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court set the benchmark: Newspapers should be prevented from publishing only when disclosure will result in 'direct, immediate, and irreparable harm to our Nation, or its people.' The bank-records disclosures do not meet that standard. They don't even come close."
- In a June 27 editorial, the Philadelphia Daily News started by criticizing Rep. Peter King (R-NY) for wanting "the editors and reporters of the New York Times strung up for treason for exposing the Bush administration's prying into the overseas bank records of Americans in hopes of finding terrorist connections." The Daily News then wondered why King "has not called for a similar investigation of the Wall Street Journal, which also broke the story last week." The Daily News concluded that "[w]hat King should really be calling for are investigations on how the administration used the feverish imaginings of a lunatic to build the case for the war in Iraq."
- In a June 28 editorial, The Baltimore Sun criticized the Bush administration's attack on The New York Times and the "free press," claiming that "[n]ewspapers frequently have to make difficult decisions about what they print -- but those judgments must remain with them. An independent press free to report the news 'without fear or favor,' as Times publisher Adolph Ochs described his mission in 1896, may be the last bastion of democracy."
- A June 28 Buffalo News editorial defended The New York Times story and argued that "Congress should move to enact a federal shield law that would help keep government as transparent and accountable as possible. By protecting reporters from governmental strong-arming, a shield law would ultimately and fundamentally protect democracy and the public's right to know what the federal bureaucracy is doing." The News added that "[t]rue secrets deserve 'classified' protection. Inconvenient information does not. Does the president, for instance, really believe al-Qaida needs the New York Times to figure out America monitors its financial transactions? The bill would make the system more standardized and accountable. With strong bipartisan support, it should become law."
- A June 28 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial questioned the "searing criticism" directed at The New York Times by "[c]onservative commentators and other critics," who, in the Inquirer's words, "had a field day tossing around the word treason." (emphasis in the original) The editorial went on to highlight comments by King because of his "talk of prosecuting journalists for revealing that federal agents are poring over records of overseas bank transactions." The Inquirer countered by noting that "more Americans are 'surviving roadside bombings in Afghanistan thanks to thick armor plate and bulletproof glass windows that now encase humvees,' " while crediting "the 2004 accounts by journalists (and bloggers) for causing the stir over the humvees' being so lightly armored." The editorial added that "King is suspiciously selective in his target. The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page espouses conservative views, was among other major papers to report the story."
- A June 28 Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minnesota) editorial also weighed in on the bank-tracking program's disclosure. The Press highlighted comments by former Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-MN), who said: "[T]he public disclosure may not be all bad, in that the story reminds terrorists that the U.S. is looking everywhere." Continuing, Durenberger said, "Don't be afraid to let some people know what you know. ... The scary stuff to them is, somebody's actually in your bedroom."
- A June 29 editorial in The Oregonian also invoked the Pentagon Papers case to argue against criticizing The New York Times and the other papers that revealed the bank-tracking program. It also supported the disclosure of the program, stating that "the nation is now aware of yet another sweeping and secret anti-terrorism monitoring program its government has set up with no judicial review, no authorizing legislation and precious little congressional oversight. How much of our civil liberties are Americans willing to give up? We can't debate such inroads if we don't know about them."
- On June 29, The Sacramento Bee took issue with criticism of The New York Times from congressional Republicans and the White House, noting comments from "Roger Cressey, a former U.S. counterterrorism official," who said that "the White House is 'overreaching,' " in its claim that the disclosure of the bank-tracking program has "do[ne] great harm to ... America," according to President Bush, by "tipping off" suspected terrorists. The Bee noted Cressey's analysis "that the SWIFT program 'has been in the public domain before.' " The Bee concluded that the Bush administration's actions, stemming from its "overdeveloped passion for secrecy ... deserve to be held up to the light of day, no matter how unflattering the result may be to those now in power."
- On June 29, The Washington Post's editorial board, whose news division also published a June 23 article on the SWIFT program (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal articles were posted online on June 22), concluded that "[t]hose who complain about disclosures assert that the war on terrorism has changed the calculus of risk. They would prefer a media meekly obeying official demands for secrecy. But in the end ... the nation stands to benefit far more than it could lose from a press that is 'alert, aware and free.' "
- A June 30 Boston Globe editorial, in supporting The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, asserted that "[a]ccusations that the papers committed a treasonous act are so intemperate that they seem to derive more from a partisan campaign by anxious Republicans than a simple concern to protect Americans from terrorist attack." The Globe added: "It is the job of a free press to let the public know what secrecy-obsessed administrations are doing in the name of the American people. The institutional interests of government and the press will inevitably clash at times, and in clashing preserve the tensile strength of an open society."
- A June 30 Columbus Dispatch editorial also came out in support of the program's public disclosure. The Dispatch asserted that "the government's monitoring of financial data and personal communications is appropriate. But beefed-up spying, as with any government program, should be subject to the checks and balances designed by the Founders to guard against abuse by any of the three branches of government." The Dispatch added, "The administration's penchant for secrecy hinders Congress' ability to oversee intelligence matters. ... Had the administration, before launching these operations, sought the approval of more lawmakers from both parties on the House and Senate intelligence panels, these efforts would face fewer complaints today."
- Finally, a June 30 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial supported The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Journal, stating that "[g]iven that the Bush administration has shown scant respect for the law, both in domestic surveillance and in confining terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, this is an important news story that should be of interest to every American who cares about how the government behaves." It further asserted that criticism of the decision to reveal the program "offends common sense."
Two conservative editorial boards have criticized The New York Times. In a June 30 editorial, the Journal's editorial board questioned The New York Times' decision to reveal the bank-tracking program's details, even though the Journal had also published a story (subscription required) on the program's operations the very same day.
The Washington Times also criticized The New York Times' June 23 bank-tracking story, writing in a June 24 editorial, titled "The right not to know," that The New York Times article "is an extraordinary commandeering of public policy from elected officials and the government they administer." The editorial concluded by stating, "The editors of the New York Times and their like-minded partisans do not understand that sometimes Americans have a right not to know about a government program."
1. Nexis "Major Newspapers" search includes foreign English language newspapers and defines its database as follows: "United States newspapers must be listed in the top 50 circulation in Editor & Publisher Year Book. Newspapers published outside the United States must be in English language and listed as a national newspaper in Benn's World Media Directory or one of the top 5% in circulation for the country." The Wall Street Journal (which does not provide full stories from its newspaper to Nexis) and The Washington Times are not included in that database.