A Conservative Site's Unintentionally Ironic Attack on a Times Reporter

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Charlie Savage, chronicler of the imperial presidency, is absurdly accused of going soft on the people in power

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Via a link on Glenn Reynolds' blog, which spreads every argument it links far and wide, I see that J. Christian Adams, writing at Pajamas Media, has attacked New York Times reporter Charlie Savage for his coverage of a recent speech by Eric Holder. As take-downs go, it's weak stuff, but noteworthy for a dubious line of criticism that I see in a lot of right-wing media criticism (perhaps influenced by Rush Limbaugh's frequent quip about "the state controlled media").

Says Adams: "There isn't much daylight between the New York Times and the government these days."

Really?

Bizarrely, the author of that sentence claims to follow the work of Charlie Savage, the object of his criticism. So do I. Savage is arguably the American newspaper reporter who does the best job of scrutinizing the Obama Administration and shedding light on its most dubious assertions of executive power. During the war in Libya, he not only wrote stories about violations of the War Powers Resolution, but went on to report that the American military was secretly playing a more major role in the conflict than what White House officials claimed. He's written a series of stories about the Fast and Furious investigation going on in Congress, reported on the secret legal memo that Obama relied on to order the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, and alerted Americans when the FBI was given the go-ahead to go father than before in invading the privacy of Americans.

Savage has reported on dissenting voices within the Obama Administration when the president sided with those who'd give him more power, and exposed the fact that DEA squads were extending the reach of the drug war. Most recently, he's written about the impact of the National Defense Authorization Act on the indefinite detention of people accused by the president of terrorism.

Let's take a look at the heds and subheads of some other articles where Savage either owns or shares the byline:

  • "Obama Says Guantanamo Charges Can Resume: President Obama reversed his order halting new military charges against detainees, implicitly admitting failure for now of his pledge to close the camp."
  • "Soldier in Leaks Case Will Be Made to Sleep Naked Nightly: Pfc. Bradley Manning will be stripped of his clothing every night as a "precautionary measure" to prevent him from injuring himself."
  • "Dispute Over Confinement of Wkileaks Suspect Echos Guantanamo Chaplain Case:Claims that the confinement of Pfc. Bradley Manning is unnecessarily harsh bring to mind similar arguments made on behalf of Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo in 2003."
  •  "Obama Signs Bill That May Hinder Guantanamo Closing: Restrictions limit the government's ability to transfer detainees out of the military prison in Cuba."
  • "Kagan Follows Precedent By Offering Few Opinions: Elena Kagan deflects questions about her own views on hot-button issues during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, instead describing Supreme Court precedents; responses are similar to those of past nominees; Kagan, who wrote 1995 article calling for judicial nominees to be more forthcoming, says in her testimony that she now believes it would be inappropriate even to answer questions that might offer glimpse of her personal views on matters of legal controversy."

All of this is to say that if you were a president of the United States who wanted to do what you wanted without pesky reporters exposing your actions, Savage is exactly the sort of reporter who'd be your scourge. He played that role during the Bush Administration, and although the critique at Pajamas Media irresponsibly implies that he's a partisan hack, Savage is in fact one of the relatively few people -- Jane Mayer and Glenn Greenwald are two others -- who've been just as doggedly determined to scrutinize and hold accountable the Obama Administration.

The irony is that on executive power, Pajamas Media conservatives are far more likely than "mainstream media" national security reporters to side with the government when they claim the need to keep secrets or assert extreme executive authority in the name of fighting terrorism.

On those matters, I often think that there isn't much daylight between the Obama Administration and the mainstream of the conservative movement. Savage normally writes straight news articles, so one doesn't see from him the anti-Obama polemics of Greenwald or the devastating narrative critiques of Mayer. We can't even be sure what Savage himself thinks about all the subjects he reports on; however, the subjects he finds newsworthy and his constant willingness to report stories the White House would rather never appeared are sufficient to demonstrate that there is in fact significant daylight between his views and those of the people in power. If only the whole of Pajamas Media would bring to light even a fraction of what Savage has in his tireless reporting during the Obama Administration, civil libertarians would cheer its work. Instead, it's picking on a guy who has done far more to afflict the president.

This is in keeping with the larger trend whereby mainstream conservatives trumpet their supposedly intense opposition to and mistrust of Obama, all the while insisting that he ought to be vested with virtually unlimited powers to wage war and spy on, imprison or even kill American citizens, unchecked by any other branch of government or even the need to present proof of his claims.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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