Spin-Free Spiral 

It's not all that surprising that a Journal editorial went bonkers over such courageous investigation. After all, their editorial page still has a hard time accepting 100-year-old progressive notions like the Federal Reserve Bank and clean food and drug acts. But as Tim Rutten quoted New York Times executive editor Bill Keller as saying, the president's authority doesn't extend to telling newspapers what they can or can't print. Perhaps a Spring Street house rule about Los Angeles Times writers taking exception to other Times writers prevented Rutten from mentioning that resident op-ed bonehead Max Boots preached the same accusation as the Journal.

Did the press really shaft the War on Terror by telling terrorists that Uncle Sam might be listening in on their phone calls with the proper warrants? It's about 50 years since mob bosses started saying, "I hope your ears drop off," to their FBI eavesdroppers. Don't you think that by now most of us, lawbreakers included, know that telephones (cellular or otherwise) are not a secure means of communication? Did al-Qaida really need The New York Times to tell them this? No. Of course the real Pulitzer story is not that officials listen in on phone calls, but that the NSA could now tap anyone, suspected terrorists or not. Similarly, it was no real news that the United States is torturing terror suspects. But the well-paid stooges of the Bush Disinformation Machine have to pretend otherwise. Hence, the age-old game of Let's Kill the Messenger, so the bad news goes away.

"People have got to be put to the torch for this sort of thing," as another U.S. president — Nixon — once put it. Funny thing is, all this fuss about the alleged Pulitzer secret-spilling comes on very nearly the 35th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers' publication in 1971. That was when Daniel Ellsberg leaked most of the Defense Department's studies on the history of the Vietnam War to The Post and The Times. The contents of these studies were already known by the North Vietnamese who had been fighting that war, but they were news to the U.S. public, who had no idea, for instance, how much this country had done to provoke the conflict. But administration stooges of that time argued that it was treason even to tell the public what the enemy already knew, on the grounds that such disclosure would undermine enthusiasm for a war that was being fought under false pretenses.

So here we go again. Liars are loyalists; truth-tellers traitors. So far no indictments against Risen, Priest, Lichtblau, et al. Maybe that has to do with the fact that the public's trust for the despised media is inching up in the polls as President Bush's approval ratings sink. Maybe it's because we have a congressional race in the offing. On the other hand, even in 1971 — back when our Supreme Court could truly be said to have a liberal majority — that court only went 6-3 to protect the press from prior restraint by the government in the "Papers" case. If it came to that point today, any guesses? Are perhaps many in the U.S. media — these Pulitzer winners excluded — being influenced, perhaps intimidated, by the possibility of such a decision and holding back on other disclosures? Is the American press hence becoming less free?

Here's an interesting sign that it is. The Paris-based international media NGO known as Reporters Without Borders has published its "2005 Press Freedom Index," its rated rankings of press freedom in 167 nations. And guess what? This country has slipped 20 places. It used to be up there with Great Britain in press freedom — around 23rd place. Now it's dropped to 44th place, above Bolivia but behind the tiny, 15-year-old former Yugoslavian nation of Macedonia.

According to the Reporters Without Borders report, "The United States fell more than 20 places, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources." Just in case you might suppose this lowered rating is due to a France-based organization's inherent antipathy to the United States, France also dropped a few notches to 30th place, "because of searches of media offices; interrogations of journalists and the introduction of new press offenses." But that is still 14 places ahead of the United States. Which is, in turn, if this makes you feel better, 145 places ahead of China (where there are more journalists in jail than in any other nation) and 153 places ahead of last-place North Korea.

The world's top 10 countries in press freedom remained European nations like Denmark, Finland and Ireland — but they also included the newer nations of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. One of the most impressive things this list shows is how many youthful and poor-to-poorish nations with bad-to-hideous recent histories of repression show better free-press scores than either the United States or France: No. 12 is Hungary, for instance, and No. 28 is El Salvador(!); Namibia shares 21st place with Canada. The former Soviet republic of Latvia, 16th place with Austria. So much for the weary idea that democracy and freedom are restricted to rich, old, powerful nations. On the other hand, wherever these brave new lands are getting their notions of the importance of a free press from, right now it probably isn't the United States of George W. Bush. S

Marc B. Haefele is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Alternative, where this article first appeared.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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