Heres a story we might need to worry about a bit. In 1918 during World War I, The New York Times reports, 79 Montanans were convicted of sedition for speaking out in ways deemed critical of the United States.
Forty-one of them got prison terms of one to 20 years and were fined
ttfrom $200 to $20,000. In one case, 12 children of one family were put up for
ttadoption after the father went to prison and the family farm failed. One of
ttthese children, now 90, is still alive. She will be present for the ceremony in which the present governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, pardons these
ttGerman-Americans, one of whom went to jail for saying that the food regulations put in place during the war were a big joke.
Sedition. Convictions. Jail sentences. Pardons for being critical of
ttgovernment policies. Impossible? Dont be too sure. It looks as if we
ttcould launch a few witch hunts ourselves these days.
James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times and Dana
ttPriest of The Washington Post were just awarded journalisms
tthighest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for their stories on our secret torture
ttchambers in Eastern European countries and domestic spying on U.S.
As I understand it, Bill Bennett, former secretary of education, would
ttlike, on the other hand, to put these three reporters in jail.
Bennett was clear in his condemnation of that kind of journalism. He
ttsaid that the reporters took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others that they not release it.
Nothing to be doubted here. Bennett calls these journalists traitors. He
ttsays they ought to be in prison rather than picking up prizes.
I dont think what they did was worthy of an award, he
ttsaid. I think what they did was worthy of jail. These people who reveal our secrets, who hurt our war effort, who hurt the efforts of our CIA, who hurt efforts of the presidents people -- they shouldnt be given awards for this. They should be looked into (through) the Espionage Act.
He did not, however, say anything about the presidents selective declassification -- leak, in common parlance -- of classified material for political reasons. To bolster his defense of the invasion of Iraq, the reason for which was beginning to unravel, Bush, we know now, had aides leak what to that point had been classified but unsubstantiated material. So, we have to assume that if Bennett wants reporters in jail for publishing material that hurt our war effort, hurt the efforts of our CIA, hurt efforts of the presidents people, he must mean the president, too.
Who, in fact, endangers the country more: A president by lying about the
ttcertain need for pre-emptive war, domestic spying or outsourced torture sites or journalists by telling the truth about the corner-cutting on the
After all, not only was classified material leaked by the
ttpresident -- former chief of staff to the vice president Lewis Libbys
ttword, not mine -- it was suspect. Knowingly suspect.
The presidents own intelligence community said it could not be
ttverified. But the president used it anyway to justify what could not be
ttjustified. It was error upon error -- or treason upon treason -- if we apply
ttMr. Bennetts value system broadly. And since Bill Bennett has become the Value Czar of the country, probably we should.
But thats the obvious -- and almost irrelevant -- part of the
ttsituation. The real question is what, if anything, will be left of the checks and balance structure of the republic if we begin to jail reporters for telling us what we need to know to preserve the Constitution and the character of the country.
Ironically enough, the very week the Pulitzer Prize was awarded, Mark
ttFelt appeared on national TV to discuss his guiding role as Deep
ttThroat in exposing the Watergate cover-up and the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon.
Question: Should Bernstein and Woodward have gone to jail rather than
ttChuck Colson, Gordon Liddy, and Bob Haldeman, who planned the robbery and,
ttworse, the cover-up by the Oval Office?
Think carefully here. The whole future of the country may be at stake.
What will happen to this democracys commitment to the Fourth
ttEstate, that institution of protected public voice that emerged out of the
ttFrench Revolution to act as a brake on the human tendency to autocratic
ttpretensions even in republics? If the media are denied the right to uncover and publish acts of government wrongdoing, what will happen to democracy
If we begin to jail journalists for telling us what we have a right -- a
ttneed -- to know about the way any given administration is frittering away the Constitution, the nations integrity will at best be the stuff of history. We will be one more banana republic governed by successive gangs of
ttopportunists, thugs and despots.
If journalists are denied the right to investigate those who do not
ttinvestigate themselves, how is this country to have any hope of stopping
ttcorruption in its tracks, of really being the country we have always thought
ttourselves to be?
From where I stand, when it becomes traitorous for an American reporter
ttto let Americans know about torture being done in their name or the domestic
ttspying to which their neighbors are being subjected, we wont need
ttnewspapers anyway. Collections of fairy tales will do. That, it seems, is a lot of what were getting right now anyway -- and that goes for what they claim are our values.