What a free press does

June 28, 2006

Seems there's some confusion about the role of a free press in a democratic society.

President Bush lauds the concept as an American tradition he hopes new governments such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan will emulate. But as he and his supporters watch a free press function as intended here at home, they don't like what they see - and charge that the press is out of line.

Most offensive to them, and this may apply particularly to Vice President Dick Cheney, is that the press is, well, free. Not subject to their control. Yet if the press ever succumbed to an administration's bullying, no American would remain free for long.

The Bush administration has spent nearly six years amassing unprecedented power within the executive branch, rolling over Congress and doing its best to intimidate the judiciary as well as the press.

More alarming is that Americans who might otherwise resist such arrogance, reflected in violations of their trust and privacy, have accepted the administration's contention that its power knows no bounds in times of war without end.

The most egregious example of overreaching disclosed so far has been the four-year-old program of secretly wiretapping Americans without court approval, a tactic Mr. Bush assured a Buffalo, N.Y., audience in 2004 was not being used. The New York Times reported otherwise last year.

Furious but embarrassed then, the administration is firing back now at the Times over its more recent disclosure of another secret program to track terrorists by mining an international data base that includes Americans' banking records. Mr. Bush condemned the disclosure as "disgraceful." New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King called it "treasonous."

The furor calls to mind the Sedition Act of 1798, when Federalists sought to stifle Thomas Jefferson's Republicans by prohibiting publication of "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" and by jailing offending editors. Mr. Jefferson was elected, and let the editors out. Press freedom was thus affirmed.

Newspapers 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.

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