In a democracy, the first responsibility of a journalist is to get accurate information about what the government is doing to the people so that they can make appropriate decisions about what is done in their name. That’s why the founders put an unequivocal freedom-of-the-press protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and its why Thomas Jefferson famously declared, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Of course, there have been some limits on what information journalists share with the citizenry. It is generally agreed, for instance, that reporters ought not report in too much detail on troop movements in wartime, as the publication of such information could endanger soldiers and undermine military objectives.
So when the Washington press corps began reporting this week on leaked information about planning by U.S. commanders in Iraq to withdraw two of the 14 combat brigades stationed in that country by September of this year, it would not have been surprising if the stories had raised eyebrows among the more sensitive players in the Bush administration.
While this is hardly a classic example of “reporting on troop movements,” it is an instance where the media is getting into quite a bit of detail about where U.S. troops will be positioned in the none-too-distant future. As an example, television networks are showing maps of the regions of Iraq from which U.S. troops might exit in relatively short order.
So what has been the reaction of a White House that is known to be on edge about leaks to leaks regarding the deployment of U.S. troops in coming months?
President Bush and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow have both ruminated on the rumors in some detail. Each has suggested that no decision has yet been made, and they have even detailed the standards that are being used to come to decisions about withdrawal.
The conversations have been easy going and White House reporters have felt no presidential fury.
Contrast that reaction to the response by the president, his aides and allies to reports in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal that the president has authorized federal agencies to monitor the banking transactions of private citizens.