Magazine article Insight on the News

Media MIA in Fight for Civil Liberties: Fearful of the Public Labeling Them as Unpatriotic, the Media Have Muzzled Themselves and Kowtowed to Those Demanding an Expansion of Law-Enforcement Powers. (Nation: Media Coverage)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Media MIA in Fight for Civil Liberties: Fearful of the Public Labeling Them as Unpatriotic, the Media Have Muzzled Themselves and Kowtowed to Those Demanding an Expansion of Law-Enforcement Powers. (Nation: Media Coverage)

Article excerpt

Media organizations have fallen all over themselves to get their people onto the front lines in Central Asia, but here at home the press has been missing in action when it comes to the funeral pyre that elements of the Bush administration have been making of some fundamental civil liberties. So say defense lawyers, civil libertarians, alarmed academics and the handful of columnists and commentators who have objected to the president's rough-justice executive order to suspend due process and put suspected foreign terrorists on trial before Pentagon-run courts, along with other "emergency" curtailment of civil liberties.

Critical voices have been all but absent from the editorial pages of America's leading newspapers, say the civil libertarians, left out purposely by editors and publishers fearful of being caught out of step with intense public opinion and anxious not to be accused of being subversive or disloyal. One Washington newspaper editor acknowledged privately to INSIGHT that the furor about controversial remarks made by Bill Maher, the comedic host of the Politically Incorrect TV show who soon may be invited to part company with ABC, was "a lesson to all of us."

Have the media generally failed to live up to their First Amendment franchise? Critics say that instead of retaining skepticism and taking a hard look at the necessity for, and possible long-term consequences of, introducing a host of new law-enforcement powers (including de facto suspension of habeas corpus), the media have kowtowed to a panicked government.

Senior Bush administration officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, maintain that wartime demands and the nature of the secretive and vicious enemy the nation is confronting dictate an extraordinary response at home as well as overseas on the scale of what was required during World War I and World War II. "The mass murder of Americans by terrorists, or the planning thereof, is not just another item on the criminal docket," Vice President Dick Cheney told a sympathetic audience of conservative lawyers on Nov. 15. "This is a war against terrorism. Where military justice is called for, military justice will be dispensed." No Federalist Society distinctions there!

Likewise, Ashcroft has defended his recent orders and legislative requests on the grounds of public safety, arguing that conversations between particular inmates and their lawyers should be monitored because potentially lifesaving information could be gleaned. Here, at last, the defense lawyers began to speak above a whisper, calling this an outrageous attack on the Sixth Amendment.

Ashcroft's people at the Justice Department also say their decision to track down and interrogate 5,000 recent immigrants, mostly from Middle Eastern countries, is an appropriate action to turn up leads that could thwart future terrorist attacks. The same with the earlier ethnic dragnet that had seen more than 1,000 suspects arrested and held on a range of offenses, from trivial and technical immigration violations to more-serious business that should have been dealt with long ago. "Security has to take precedence over liberty," a senior Ashcroft aide says. "And we think the public is with us."

Anecdotal evidence and some polling data suggest that Bush officials are right to believe that popular opinion supports the draconian tack the administration is adopting. "The media should be falling in line," says commentator and former Republican aide Tony Blankley. "The danger is great enough for us to cut back now on civil liberties. It is all a question of balance. I have been a civil libertarian and will be again in a couple of years. The terrorists will win when they kill us, and we will win when we kill them."

Others aren't so sure the proper role of the media is to act as cheerleaders for this or any other administration. "In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks it was understandable that the media were reticent about raising questions that seemed trivial or beside the point," says Paul McMasters, ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, a First Amendment media charity funded by the Gannett newspaper chain. …

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