Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Most Americans think that news organizations have hurt national-security interests by revealing that the government has examined the bank records of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.

That finding in a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll contradicts another finding from the same poll: Even more people think such news stories “told citizens something they should know about.”

By a margin of 50 percent to 34 percent, Americans said news organizations hurt the nation by exposing the bank monitoring program, according to the Pew poll. But 65 percent of the same 2,003 persons polled also said the stories were worth knowing.

That contradiction underscores the growing tension between press freedoms and the government’s growing penchant for secrecy, legal and media analysts say.

“We see it over and over again: People say maybe the press shouldn’t have said that, but we really want them to keep digging,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Washington-based opinion research center.

The poll shows that the public hopes the press will remain vigilant even if it disagrees with what is reported, Mr. Kohut said.

The center found a similar response when it asked the public about the National Security Agency’s program allowing it to eavesdrop on telephone calls and e-mails of Americans with ties to suspected terrorists overseas, Mr. Kohut said.

The Pew poll shows that the public is “schizophrenic,” said Jane Kirtley, a media and law professor at the University of Minnesota. The public seems to want the press to be a watchdog on government, she said, but it doesn’t want to know too much.

“Part of us say, ‘I didn’t need to know that the government was looking at bank records. This is a valuable program, and now the bad guys will know about it,’” Miss Kirtley said. “But ultimately, the public does think that the government needs to be more accountable and the press is the best means to do that.”

The public is fickle, said Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at George Washington University. But that is only part of the story, he said.

When news stories are presented by the White House as a danger to national security, it “feel ominous” to the reader when compared with ill-defined liberties that they are losing, Mr. Feldstein said.

“Liberty is going to almost always lose to order,” he said.

The White House strongly defends its programs, saying they are necessary to stop another terrorist attack. The poll backs up the administration’s contention that the president is doing the right thing to protect the public.

“Americans consistently demonstrate that they agree that sensitive intelligence leaks undermine our ability to defeat our enemies,” said Emily A. Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

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