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Paper in a Bubble: Is the Times Even More Cut Off than George Bush?

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More from French Polynesia. We are now in Moorea, a stunning little island 9 miles northwest of Tahiti. As a Greek, I probably should not be saying this, but this is the most beautiful island I've ever seen. It's easy to see why Marlon Brando fell in love with the area when he was here in 1960 scouting locations for "Mutiny on the Bounty" -- parts of which were shot in Moorea -- and eventually bought the small neighboring island of Tetiaroa.

In between feeding the stingrays, I'm doing my best to keep up with the news. The NSA surveillance story isn't big news here. The top stories in recent copies of the Tahiti Presse I picked up were about a budget battle between President Temaru and the opposition party (which is threatening to challenge the budget in court), and the Temaru administration's hope that a new film about a Tahitian fisherman who survived 118 days after being lost at sea, will draw tourists to the area.

But, thankfully I can access the Internet, so I've been able to watch online as the New York Times blows it once again.

Okay, set your watch: it's now officially time to be worried about the future of the erstwhile paper of record.

What were Sulzberger and company thinking? There Pinch was, prancing around for the last year under the illusion that his defense of Judy Miller was going to be his reputation-making Pentagon Papers moment, while doing the exact opposite of what his father did with the Pentagon Papers by sitting on this bombshell story for a year.

Now, instead of crusading journalists, Sulzberger and his editors look like a bunch of schmucks -- or, worse, a bunch of toadies doing the White House's bidding.

Adding big-time to the schmuck factor was Bill Keller's ludicrous explanation that the Times agreed to sit on the story after the White House "assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions...As we have done before in rare instances when faced with a convincing national security argument, we agreed not to publish at that time."

Oh, my god. Where to begin?

Who is "everyone involved?" Sulzberger? Keller? Karl Rove? And exactly how were they "satisfied"? Given that members of Bush's own party -- like Arlen Specter, who is now planning hearings -- are obviously not"satisfied," what kind of miniscule satisfaction threshold does the Times have? Even given all that we learned from the Miller debacle, I would have assumed the paper would still set the bar just a tad higher than members of Bush's own party.

And how did the Timesmen come by that unanimous satisfaction? It's not like the administration's credibility problems weren't already well-known known before it asked the Times to keep its readers in the dark. (For a nice list of what we already knew about Bush a year ago, check out this post at First Draft).

And since when is being faced with the tired "national security argument" enough to frighten away the Times? (It's the same ploy John Mitchell used when trying to get Pinch's dad to spike the Pentagon Papers story in '71). C'mon, let's be real: isn't invoking national security Bush's default setting?

Back in October, we noted how the Times' handling of the Miller case might have helped Bush win re-election. And now we learn that the paper did Bush/Cheney 2004 another huge favor by not going with the spy story when it first had it -- before the election. As Will Bunch puts it in this terrific post, "Simply put, the Bush White House gamed the media in 2004... Voters could have gone to the polls on Election Day, Nov. 4, 2004, knowing that Bush was spying on Americans, that a key White House aide was charged with felonies, and that the initial rationales for Iraq were bogus." And check out emptywheel for chapter and verse on the connections between the Miller and NSA spying stories.

So here's the inevitable question all this raises: What else is the Times sitting on? How many other instances of Bush administration illegality has the Times been "satisfied" that we don't need to know. Could we at least have a rough estimate?

There's been much talk about the bubble that George Bush lives in, but if he ever finds that his model is too porous, he should check out the one that Sulzberger, Keller, and the Times have crafted for themselves.

Even after the Miller fiasco, it's clear that those in charge of the Times still haven't figured out the fundamental nature of the crisis that has arisen between the paper and its readers. So let me spell it out for them:

The paper is in grave danger of losing its relevance because the public can no longer trust that the very first instinct of the Times when it comes across a piece of news is, "Is this something important for our readers to know?" instead of, "Who might we piss off if we publish this?"

The future of the Times hinges on its ability to convince its readers that its loyalty flows to the public and not to the powers-that-be.

After the Supreme Court freed the Times to resume publication of the Pentagon Paper in 1971, Times managing Abe Rosenthal was asked whether some degree of antagonism between the government and the press was "a sign of good health in both parties." He replied: "I think it is. I don't think we'll ever see the day, nor should we see the day, when we're in bed together."

It's a tragedy that Abe's crystal ball gazing turned out to be so wrong.