Bill Bennett Takes a Stab at Comparing Phone Hacking Scandal & WikiLeaks

Former Secretary of Education and CNN contributor William Bennett joins the ranks of those seeking to deflect attention away from the News Corp phone hacking scandal by comparing the scandal to WikiLeaks. He also joins a cadre of people, who are using the scandal to whip up hysteria about the “unethical” conduct of the press in America when it comes to coverage of national security matters.

Bennett’s core argument is that the media does not like Rupert Murdoch or his News Corp empire. Why? Because the media has a “liberal disposition.” He believes Murdoch has run against this “disposition” through his cultural and “business-oriented effort to provide another angle, a different disposition, an additional ideology.

He continues:

Given the scandal that has rocked News Corp. in Great Britain, however, it seems the journalist class in America has shown hypocrisy in their ethical attention within their own fourth-estate clubhouse.

It is impossible to defend or excuse what has been alleged and confessed to in the News of the World scandal unfolding by the day, but it is equally impossible to ignore that most other media outlets have been subject to nothing like the kind of examination and criticism Murdoch and News Corp. have received.

The double standard for journalistic integrity within the profession is simply too obvious to miss.

Bennett finds that “unethical” journalists in America, who exercise “poor judgment,” often go from facing “muted” or “mild criticism” to being defended and rewarded. He believes “the double standard for journalistic integrity within the profession is simply too obvious to miss.”

What evidence does Bennett have of a “double standard”?

Take two examples — and we could fill pages and pages with others — the WikiLeaks scandal, where another Australian-born journalist, Julian Assange, has released troves of classified material that have the potential to “put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security,” according to the Obama administration.

It wasn’t tapping peoples’ phones, but the potential for damage from the WikiLeaks affair is much broader and far more trans-national. Indeed, it has been alleged that the disclosures have already caused great harm.

Was there much criticism of Assange, WikiLeaks or the papers that printed their material in the journalist community? There was not. Indeed, in some quarters, it was even urged Assange receive a Pulitzer.

It’s profoundly disingenuous that Bennett links to a Facebook page “liked” by 72 people and seeks to create this idea that the journalistic class in America is pulling for Julian Assange to win a Pulitzer Prize. How many people are employed in the field of journalism in this country? Have any of them even “liked” this page? I doubt it.

Bennett’s comparison is obviously of the knee-jerk variety otherwise he would not even rhetorically ask if papers that printed material from WikiLeaks have criticized Assange or WikiLeaks. Is Bennett aware of how much Assange and probably much of the WikiLeaks organization despises the New York Times because it has published articles critical of Assange and WikiLeaks? Does he even know that now, in order for the NYT to publish scoops from WikiLeaks, it has to get the scoops from The Guardian if it wants to be part of a news event?

His commentary shows his chief concern. He cannot point to how covering WikiLeaks has led journalists to break a law. His assessment of whether what journalists did was ethical or not stems from his smug belief that America is the world’s “last best hope.” It stems from his support for the Bush Administration’s policies on the war on terror, like waterboarding, black site prisons, military tribunals for terror suspects, etc, which he has shown support for as a commentator on CNN.

WikiLeaks’ ability to draw attention to the illicit, illegitimate and illegal policies of the Bush Administration is essentially what Bennett finds reprehensible. But, he isn’t just upset that journalists have helped WikiLeaks with its distribution of previously classified information. He also is opposed to how the New York Times covers national security stories.

Another: The New York Times did receive Pulitzers from its cohorts — not criticism from its colleagues — for disclosing national security intelligence on key anti-terrorism policies, reports that have caused other harms in the larger war effort.

We can all agree journalistic ethics are more fluid than a single standard would warrant. But the next time there is a lapse or series of lapses in the print media, it should not be too much to ask if the harms caused deserved awards and recognition or near-universal condemnation and, yes, the schadenfreude we’ve seen over Murdoch and News of the World (see here and here for obvious examples).

Of course saying this requires us to agree on what a lapse is. And, to date, there is still little agreement that the disclosure of war-time national security intelligence constitutes such a lapse while there seems to be agreement that the invasion of the privacy of politicians, royalty and private citizens does.

The reason there is an agreement seems to escape Bennett. It should not be surprising: phone hacking is illegal. That is why the jury is so very in on this debate. The debate on disclosures of so-called wartime national security intelligence is more fierce because establishing what is off-limits and not would put boundaries on freedom of the press.

Bennett repeats the term “schadenfreude,” which the Wall Street Journal used in its op-ed on Monday. It seems only appropriate to reply to Bennett’s use of the term with Joe Nocera’s words of his NYT op-ed on WSJ’s defense of News Corp: “Well, yes, the schadenfreude is pretty darn thick. Who would deny it?”

Trevor Timm, who curates a Twitter account that keeps track of news and views on legal issues surrounding WikiLeaks, calls attention to a clip of Bennett on “Meet the Press” posted to YouTube in 2007. In the clip, Bennett tries to criminalize national security journalism, just as he does in his column on CNN, as he criticizes the media outlets that published details on a terrorist finance tracking program known as SWIFT.

BENNETT: It’s not time to break out the champagne and the Pulitzers. This is not about politics, not from my perspective. It’s about the United States of America and the security of the United States of America. The difference is, the government was elected. People may not like the Bush administration, but they were elected and they are entitled to due consideration on these matters. The American people, in fact, believe in a free press, as I do, and I don’t believe in prior restraint of the press. But the American people are saying, if you listen to them in very, very large and consistent numbers—and an awful lot of people across the board are saying this—is four times now, four times in eight months, Dana Priest’s story, the National Surveillance Security Agency monitoring story, the USA Today story about data mining. “Oh, sorry,” they tell us on Friday, “We maybe got that wrong. Our sources were wrong.”

During the clip, the Washington Post’s Dana Priest calls Bennett out for his slippery stance on national security journalism:

It’s not a crime to publish classified information. And this is one of the things Mr. Bennett keeps telling people that it is. But, in fact, there are some narrow categories of information you can’t publish, certain signals, communications, intelligence, the names of covert operatives and nuclear secrets.

Now why isn’t it a crime? I mean, some people would like to make casino gambling a crime, but it is not a crime. Why isn’t it a crime? Because the framers of the Constitution wanted to protect the press so that they could perform a basic role in government oversight, and you can’t do that. Look at the criticism that the press got after Iraq that we did not do our job on WMD. And that was all in a classified arena.

Priest says later in this edition of “Meet the Press” the “war on terror is a “classified war,” and it’s important to cover because there is reason to doubt whether the government is going to “achieve its strategic goals.” Just prior to the above mentioned remark, Priest notes that the government always says national security stories “will damage national security” but never provides proof.

In this same edition, Bennett also shows that he believes it is righteous to go after people like James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who have been given awards for reporting on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Even though Priest presents herself to Bennett as one of the good journalists who consults with the government when she is about to publish reports on topics like secret prisons, Bennett also says it would be right to go after her. Focused on going after people in government who provide information to reporters on national security programs—whistleblowers, Bennett says, “We need to get after those people, and one way to get after those people is to talk to the reporters who—with whom they spoke.”

Bennett’s CNN column is nothing more than an attempt to further intimidate members of the press into shying away from producing solid national security journalism. Taken into consideration alongside Glenn Greenwald’s report on how the government has worked and continues to work to discredit The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill and his report on CIA secret sites in Somalia, it is evident that national security journalism is greatly feared. Bennett even fears national security journalism that comes from colluding with the government and holding back details that the government insists remain secret.

Furthermore, what’s fascinating is how Obama’s continuation of so many Bush policies makes it possible for this all-out assault on national security journalism to be waged. Bennett, who believes “damn right” torture works, can say on CNN in May 2009, “Although the president talks like he’s from the ACLU, he’s acting like George Bush. Whether you’re talking about military tribunals, or not releasing the photographs, or surveillance, or the Patriot Act, this is consistent with the Bush administration, with two exceptions, Guantanamo, where the Democrats don’t agree, and they don’t want to water-board three people, which we did and which I think was a very good idea.”

The bipartisan national consensus on Bush Administration “war on terror” policies allows people like Bennett to shift attention to criminalizing national security reporters. It allows for right wing conservatives to aid the government in its war on whistleblowing and in its war on WikiLeaks. And, when truly outrageous scandals in the press come along, like the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity or the News Corp phone hacking scandal, they can easily deflect attention since few in the political class will speak up in defense of freedom of the press.

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