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by William H. Benson

November 15, 2007

     On November 17, 1734, New York’s colonial authorities arrested Peter Zenger, a recent immigrant from Germany who had, upon his arrival, begun printing the New York Weekly Journal. William Cosby, the governor, charged Zenger with publishing articles about the governor that he considered libelous. However, the court acquitted Zenger on August 4, 1735, arguing that even though Zenger had written highly critical comments about the governor, everything he wrote was true.

     The case set an important American tradition, that those serving in public positions are valid subjects for public criticism, but that the criticisms must be true. The case paved the way for freedom of the press, which was then guaranteed in the First Amendment of Madison’s Bill of Rights in 1789: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press.”

     In 1798, during the John Adams administration, a Federalist-controlled Congress passed a controversial law, known as the Sedition Act, which prohibited the publishing or even the utterance of any “false, scandalous, and malicious” criticism of the government or its top officials. Ten Jeffersonian Republicans, mostly newspaper editors, were convicted, and three were jailed. An outraged Jefferson declared that the Sedition Act was a violation of the First Amendment. After a time, the Sedition Act was struck down.

     So we see that a certain tension has marked relations between public officials and the press throughout American history. Kennedy had a wonderful rapport with the press, probably the best of any modern-day President. The Washington press corps loved his charm and appreciated his wit during their press meetings. Nixon had the worst. After his failure to win the election as governor of California, he leveled them with his rejoinder, “You won’t have me to kick around anymore.”

     In a new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times, makes a strong case that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld artfully deceived the press in their run-up for war against Iraq, and “the press, by and large, took the bait.”

     The war was sold upon certain premises: that there was an official Iraqi connection with at least one of the 9/11 terrorists, that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, specifically aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium, and that there was no reason to wait for the final proof—a nuclear explosion.

     We soon learned that none of these claims was even remotely true, and that this was not simply a case of incorrect intelligence. A British memo surfaced in July of 2002, months before the war, which said that “the intelligence and facts” about W.M.D.’s “were being fixed around the policy” of going to war.

     A biographer of Bush’s Presidency recently wrote: “Bush was not relying on intelligence to buttress his claims of Saddam’s dark fantasies of plotting attacks on America with Al Qaeda. . . . For no such intelligence existed.”

     There is plenty of blame to share for this failure, and some rests upon the newspapers and the reporters. They should have known better than to swallow all that Bush was saying. They should have dug deeper and not buried their concerns on the back pages.

     A reviewer of Rich’s book asked a series of pointed questions: “How could this have happened? How could some of the best, most fact-checked, most reputable news organizations in the English-speaking world have been so gullible? How can one explain the temporary paralysis of skepticism?”

     A writer to be worth anything must think unconventionally, and she or he must question everything, take nothing on faith until she or he has proved true what the political leaders are saying. Narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and narrow horizons can stand in the way of getting at the truth. That is the funny thing about facts; they keep getting in the way of our prejudices, and our own biased distortions of the truth.

     It is the duty of the press in a free society to certify as true that which the politicians publicly state, and if it is not true, to say that it is false. That was the premise of Zenger’s case, and in Bush’s geared-up campaign to take out Saddam Hussein, the press failed to attack, criticize, or even act skeptical.