Put Up Your Dukes

America needs to have a loud argument about the role of the press in a time of war and terrorism.

The press is the enemy. —Richard Nixon

The White House is always at war with the press, but the fighting doesn't often get as bloody as it's been the past week, with the president, the vice president, the Treasury secretary, and other officials denouncing reports in The New York Times and elsewhere about a secret anti-terrorism program that taps into a global financial database.

Bush called the stories "disgraceful." Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, declared the leaks "treasonous" and asked the attorney general to investigate "the recent actions of the reporters, editors, and publisher of The New York Times ... for possible criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act."

There are plenty of reasons to hope that there will be no such investigation, especially if you believe that a free press is as crucial to the country's security and well-being as any intelligence program could ever be. Journalists publish secrets all the time, sometimes wisely, sometimes not. Even if Bush is right and this particular story did "great harm," why should the government spend all of that time and effort going after our own media outlets? Is there anything to be gained by making a nasty moment in White House-media relations even nastier?

There may be. Watching the story play out, I've found myself hoping that reasonable heads don't prevail on this one, that the conflict will get hotter and uglier and eventually wind up in court, à la Plame only more dramatic. Why? Because this country needs to have a great, big, loud, come-to-Jesus argument about the role of the press in a time of war, terror, and secrecy.

Should news outlets ever report government secrets? Under what circumstances? When is leaking wrong and treasonous, and when is it heroic? Do the news media have rights and duties that sometimes conflict with, and even transcend, the law?

These questions have been swirling around us for five years now, but in a vague, amorphous kind of way. They are crucial, and they need to be thrashed out, even if there are no absolute answers. But they are also abstract and apparently not very engaging to the public. A poll conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in Chicago recently found that Americans know more about The Simpsons than they do about the First Amendment—a lot more.

Freedom of speech may never be as engaging as a classic sitcom. But if Americans had a ripping good brawl to focus on, they might tune in. The only way to get the public to focus on anything in this news-drenched world is to make it larger than life, bigger than a movie. The First Amendment needs a Terri Schiavo moment, a Katrina, a story that stops everything the way a 7.5-magnitude California earthquake does.

So let's have a fight. Not an opaque, mind-bendingly complicated fight like the Plame case, but a clear one that pits the government's legitimate interest in secrecy against the media's equally legitimate interest in truth and disclosure.

This could be that kind of fight. There are heavyweights on both sides, and the details are chewier and more interesting than most people realize. For instance, the administration and its allies have worked hard to portray The New York Times as a coven of knee-jerk leftists, implicitly pro-terrorist. Said The National Review in an online editorial: "The New York Times is a recidivist offender in what has become a relentless effort to undermine the intelligence-gathering without which a war against embedded terrorists cannot be won."

Yet the Times' editor and point man on this story, Bill Keller, is nothing like this caricature. His defense of his decision to publish the latest disclosure has been logical and reasonable. What's more, he's no leftist, but more of a tortured centrist. As an op-ed columnist, Keller supported the Iraq war, calling himself a "reluctant hawk."

And remember, this is not just any war. It's a war launched on fallacious secret intelligence, by an administration that often seems to think the only good news outlet is a docile one.

So, is the press really the enemy?

This pot's been simmering for too long. Let it boil.