- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

Conflicts between the White House and the media are likely to escalate this year. That could prove a lose-lose situation for both sides.

The price of winning and losing this institutional battle will be the credibility of one or both. There are few ingredients more important than credibility for the government and for the press. The credibility of both is at a low point today, and neither side can afford to lose the battle.

In recent years the media have lost credibility in various ways, ranging from false reports by reporters from the New York Times and The Washington Post to the Dan Rather campaign incident regarding President Bush’s military record to accusations of bias by network and cable news broadcasts.

Both the Democrats and the media have undermined President Bush’s credibility over factors in the Iraq war. The more recent debate looms large over wiretapping in the war on terror.

For the president, it is vital the public takes him at his word if he is to lead the country strongly. Can you trust the president? A related question is whether the president overstepped his legal bounds by bypassing the foreign intelligence surveillance court as he approved wiretapping telephone calls involving possible terrorists. If the public believes the president was wrong, he loses credibility. I believe the so-called silent majority supports the president.

Few debates have more angles than international wiretapping. One section of law says the president must get surveillance court approval to wiretap suspects such as terrorists. President Bush says “I was elected to protect the American people from harm. And on September 11, 2001, our nation was attacked. And after that day, I vowed to use all the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American People, which is what I have been doing and will continue to do.”

There are questions if the wiretaps were roving and how that affects the law, and if wiretaps without court approval were necessary to protect the country. To me, the worst scenario would be a halt to wiretapping and loss of intelligence so badly needed in this new kind of war.

If the president ever must decide whether to order shooting down a civilian airplane apparently headed to attack the Capitol or the White House, what will critics say then?

Liberals and some conservatives and some media relate this type of wiretapping to violating individual privacy. This has become a major theme in attacks on the president’s credibility.

But, as much as we require privacy in democracy, there are moments when privacy, personal and corporate has limits. When it comes to saving the nation from attack, as possibly the wiretapping does, I believe privacy is a false issue.

The Justice Department inquiry into who leaked information about wiretapping to the press undoubtedly will stir further battles between the government and the press.

The leaks clearly came from a person or persons opposed to the president’s wiretap policy or perhaps from government sources opposed to the Iraq war. Disagreement with policy traditionally has been the most common cause for leaks in government. And because this involves releasing top secret information, the penalties could be severe.

Regarding the press, two kinds of questions will evolve. The Justice Department likely will seek to interview reporters asking them to reveal their sources. Most, if not all, will refuse to cooperate. A few months ago, it seemed Congress might pass a national shield law to alleviate this problem, but the House Judiciary Committee has set no hearings on the Pence bill to protect reporters. No action appears likely.

A reporter also needs to be known as a man or woman who will keep promises. Revealing sources would diminish the media’s watchdog role. Since there is no national shield law, some reporters may go to jail to protect their sources.

The second point for the press is whether revelations in this case will damage national security, a question similar to that asked when leakers are interrogated. I believe there is a carefully drawn line on what the press or broadcast should reveal, and in this case the New York Times went too far.

Senior officers of the Times apparently met with the president and were asked not to reveal the wiretap spying on the enemy. After about a year’s delay, the Times decided to publish anyway. It has not revealed the reason for the apparent change of mind. The Times may have learned someone else was about to go with the story and decided not to be beat. To me, that is not a reason to break security.

The arguments in this case are not so different from the old Pentagon Papers case where the newspapers prevailed in the Supreme Court.

There are other questions that will involve the media in controversy this year. Reporting is becoming more personal, and editorial comment too often seeps into the news. Broadcasters turn more toward entertainment and crime, and real news coverage is decreased. Cable Channels such as Fox and CNN are becoming more openly partisan. Newspapers have redoubled their efforts to be accurate. But with cutbacks on many staffs, errors will increase.

In a democracy such as ours, credibility is more than a political question. The American public is becoming more and more skeptical. Some skepticism is good; too much is dangerous, even in a democracy.

As San Diego’s mayor said recently, “Trust is to be earned.” It is time for an all-hands effort to earn it.

Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications.

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