Thomas Jefferson understood.
He said that if asked to choose between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, "I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter." Jefferson knew that a free and adversarial press was the people's best defense against the excesses of their government and a fundamental building block of healthy democracy.
Unfortunately, that was 40 presidents ago.
The present president has a decidedly different view of the news media's role. His administration sees the press as a thing to be bought. In fact, while political manipulation of the news is hardly new, Team Bush has a long and singularly sordid record of trying to turn the media into a wholly owned public relations subsidiary.
Now they're taking their act on the road. And get this: they're doing it under the guise of building democracy. Which is rather like stealing from the collection plate under the guise of giving to the needy.
I refer you to last week's Los Angeles Times report that the Pentagon has been secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories, written by American troops, that reflect favorably upon the U.S. mission in that country. The stories, while basically factual, are reportedly written so as to flatter U.S. forces and the Iraqi government and to omit information or perspectives either might find embarrassing. These press releases are presented to the Iraqi people as independent reports by independent reporters.
One is appalled, but hardly surprised. After nearly five years of watching these folks' truth-optional approach to dealing with the public, one is seldom surprised anymore.
This is, after all, the same Bush administration that was caught buying praise from an ethically challenged columnist - in violation of federal laws against propagandizing the public, according to a September report by the Government Accountability Office. It's the same administration that allowed into the White House press room as a reporter an Internet porn entrepreneur who wrote for a GOP Web site. The same one that issues video reports favorable to its policies to be broadcast without attribution as TV news. The same one that censors and quashes its own scientific studies when they conflict with its preferred worldview.
So this is just more of the same in a new ZIP code.
It will be argued by the usual sycophantic Bush enablers that what's being done is justifiable. We are at war, they will say, and in war it is perfectly acceptable to propagandize the enemy.
So it is. But the flaw in that logic is this: We are not at war with Iraq. We are at war in Iraq against insurgents seeking to topple the government. At least, that's the line put forth by Team Bush. Iraq, they say, is a sovereign nation to which we are simply helping bring the joys of democracy - one of which would be a free press.
That being the case, you cannot justify telling covert lies to its people any more than you can justify telling them to ours. You want to communicate something to them? Buy an ad. Drop leaflets. Put up posters. But don't produce a commercial and tell people it's news.
Doing so undermines both the message and the medium. It could also conceivably encourage Iraqis to question how seriously they should take - how seriously we ourselves take - this whole notion of a free and independent press.
Indeed, one can only guess how this is playing with Iraqi journalists. After all, the messages could hardly be more mixed. On the one hand, U.S. officials are offering them workshops in media ethics. On the other hand, U.S. officials are violating the most basic media ethics with blithe indifference.
But then, it's a sour joke in the first place that the Bush administration purports to teach Iraqis how democracy works.
You can't teach what you don't understand.
- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.