June 26, 2006

BILL KELLER ISN’T VERY BRIGHT, or else he thinks you aren’t. How else to explain this passage in his apologia for the Times’ publication of classified information about the terrorist financial surveillance program:

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government’s anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that’s the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.)

I realize that the Times’ circulation is falling at an alarming rate, but it hasn’t yet reached such a pass that its stories are only noticed when Rush Limbaugh mentions them.

A deeper error is Keller’s characterization of freedom of the press as an institutional privilege, an error that is a manifestation of the hubris that has marked the NYT of late. Keller writes: “It’s an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. . . . The power that has been given us is not something to be taken lightly.”

The founders gave freedom of the press to the people, they didn’t give freedom to the press. Keller positions himself as some sort of Constitutional High Priest, when in fact the “freedom of the press” the Framers described was also called “freedom in the use of the press.” It’s the freedom to publish, a freedom that belongs to everyone in equal portions, not a special privilege for the media industry. (A bit more on this topic can be found here.)

Characterizing the freedom this way, of course, makes much of Keller’s piece look like, well, just what it is — arrogant and self-justificatory posturing. To quote Keller: “Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff — but it’s the kind of elementary context that sometimes gets lost in the heat of strong disagreements.”

Or institutional self-importance. As Hugh Hewitt observes, at the conclusion to a much lengthier critique: “He doesn’t have any defense other than his position as editor of a once great newspaper.”

And the Constitution does not permit titles of nobility.

UPDATE: Austin Bay comments: “The Times, apparently, told the story because it could and because it thinks it can get away with it.”