Alan Rusbridger, editor of London's Guardian, faced off with British legislators last week about his newspaper's publishing secrets about official surveillance that were leaked by the fugitive U.S. intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden.
Press advocates weren't pleased.
Carl Bernstein, the Watergate-era star who's on the Mount Rushmore of 20th century media heroes, certainly wasn't. In an open letter to Rusbridger, Bernstein objected to Parliament's "hauling in journalists for questioning and trying to intimidate them," and said the editor's appearance before a House of Commons committee was "dangerously pernicious."
Roy Greenslade, ex-editor of Britain's Daily Mirror, wasn't pleased either. "Why, I kept asking myself, was an editor being required to explain himself to MPs [Members of Parliament]?" Greenslade wrote. "What makes them think they have the right to do so?"
Me, I disagree. I was glad to hear Rusbridger answering questions. It's not that I want politicians to bully the news media. And I don't think journalists should be routinely summoned before legislators to explain their editorial choices.
Nor do I disagree with Carl Bernstein about the need to keep governmental secrecy, not newsroom policies, at the foreground of public debate, and to insist that it's the duty of a free press to battle bureaucrats over control of information that has public significance.
But I was happy to see a reasonably honest confrontation between a brave and dedicated journalist and parliamentarians, especially when the interlocutors weren't just showboating for cable news or social media, but seemed genuinely concerned that the journalists might have badly misunderstood the harm that publishing the Snowden materials might cause.
Like Rusbridger, I believe the legislators were wrong. But they asked pretty good questions. They wanted to know whether The Guardian and the organizations with which it cooperated -- among them The Washington Post and New York Times -- had handled the files with care, and they worried that the leaks might leak further even if the journalists didn't mean to publish them.
And the lawmakers wanted to know how journalists decide which secrets should be disclosed, a question even press zealots like me agree is pivotal. Rusbridger responded about the skill and long experience of the reporters involved, and the steps they took to seek official input and withhold what might prove truly harmful.
Now, it's important not to admire unduly the British approach to media controls, which can be heavy-handed and autocratic. But while U.S. political leaders pay lip service to the need for "a national conversation" about surveillance and state secrecy, their main response has been not to foster one, but to vilify and criminalize the whistleblowers like Snowden whose leaks put that conversation on the national agenda.
That's hypocritical, in my view. But what about the position of our news media? Shouldn't they be part of this supposed conversation? Apparently not. My guess is there's not one U.S. journalist in a hundred who would suggest that the editor of The New York Times or Washington Post should submit to congressional questioning the way Rusbridger did.
But why not? Congress, as ridiculous as it can be, is still our supreme deliberative body. Our journalists, unlike Britain's, operate within a strong tradition of constitutional and statutory protections -- so it's not as if they would face anything like the legislative perils The Guardian had to consider.
Moreover, what better place to weigh in and argue the case for a powerfully adversarial press that challenges dominant institutions and wrests from them the information -- even when it's classified -- that the public needs to do its job, which is to run this country?
Maybe we would all benefit from having our news media leaders join the public policy debate over bloated official secrecy and runaway surveillance, and denounce the government's current campaign to literally lock up the news media's most precious asset, its sources.
Compared with the British approach, the U.S. alternative, I'm afraid, isn't a conversation that's freer, bolder and more thoughtful. It's not a conversation at all. There's no forum, there's no focus. The result is a jagged and incoherent melee that's waged through invective by headline-seeking demagogues, preening and posturing in a media environment that's glutted with channels and desperate for eyeballs.
And while press advocates here would say it's a triumph of media independence that no editor here would ever be called before Congress, the irony is that we've ended up with a political regime in which arbitrary secrecy remains unchallenged and the news media are timid and frightened, so accustomed to a defensive crouch they can no longer stand up.