A War Room for The Times?

It’s true what the right-wing bloggers and bloviators say: The New York Times does indeed resemble a branch of the Democratic Party.

But the newspaper’s conservative critics are utterly wrong about where the resemblance really lies.

The similarities between the newspaper of record and the opposition party have nothing to do with treason, irresponsibility or blaming America first. The main thing the institutions share is a potentially fatal timidity.

The Times, like the Dems, has yet to absorb the age-old aphorism that the best means of defense is attack.

The Times, like the Dems, clings to an anachronistic belief that it should not engage in debates that it deems coarse, vicious or otherwise beneath it.

And in so doing, The Times, like the Dems, leaves the field open for its opponents to hurl any insult and press home any smear, safe in the knowledge that no serious counterattack will be mounted.

Perhaps Melanie Morgan might help sharpen some minds on 43rd Street. Ms. Morgan is a California-based talk-show host. Two weeks ago, she declared that she “would have no problem” with the executive editor of The Times, Bill Keller, being sent to the gas chamber for treason.

Ms. Morgan’s remarks were the most lurid in the flap that followed the recent Times story about the Bush administration’s attempts to detect financial transactions linked to terrorism through the SWIFT system.

The furor was largely confected.

As the journalist Gene Lyons has pointed out, “nobody who’s paying attention could be surprised that U.S. agents monitor international money transfers. George W. Bush has been patting himself on the back about it for years.”

President Bush nonetheless branded disclosure of the program “disgraceful.” Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that the press was “making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people.”

Long Island Congressman Peter King went one better, calling The Times “treasonous” and demanding a criminal investigation. Ann Coulter, ever the merry prankster, wrote that “ New York Times publisher ‘Pinch’ Sulzberger has just been named al-Qaida’s ‘Employee of the Month’ for the 12th straight month.”

The response from The Times was characteristically mild. Mr. Keller penned a thoughtful op-ed with his counterpart from the Los Angeles Times, Dean Baquet, and appeared on Face the Nation to defend the original article.

Such a genteel approach is not enough.

The battle that has been joined by the right is less about the specifics of recent Times stories than about the very raison d’être of a free press. Its outcome will not be decided by high-minded debate alone.

The radio talk shows, the cable shoutfests and the blogs now play at least as big a role in creating conventional wisdom as the major newspapers and broadcast networks.

It is understandable that Mr. Keller and his reporters may not want to wade into those shark-infested waters. But why should The Times’ public-relations representatives not do so?

It is long overdue for The Times, and the shrinking number of other serious media outlets, to redefine the role that their flacks should play.

Here, for once, the Democrats—or at least the sole Democratic President in living memory to win two terms—offer a useful precedent: the war room.

Spokespeople for The Times and other comparable media outlets need to realize that no slur, no matter how crazed, can go unanswered in today’s climate. If that means offering interviewees to the shrillest talk shows, aggressively slapping down demagogic attacks and employing people solely to stomp on blog-inspired trash, so be it.

This kind of rapid rebuttal should, obviously, counter criticism from both left and right. As I have argued in this space before, the Judith Miller affair involved a reporter being hung out to dry for “crimes” for which there was minimal supporting evidence. A quicker, more aggressive defense in that instance could have prevented blogosphere hysteria hardening into received wisdom.

None of this is to suggest that The Times or The Washington Post or ABC or CNN are without flaws. They have plenty. But they also have the resources and expertise to provide a vital service to the citizens of this nation.

They shouldn’t stay silent while being lectured on integrity by the mouthpiece of a chronically biased cable channel like Bill O’Reilly, or a bombastic attention-seeker like Ms. Coulter.

To extend the parallel with the Democrats one more time, the SWIFT-ing of The Times is akin to the Swift-boating of John Kerry.

Mr. Kerry came to rue his complacency. What remains of America’s quality media must not make the same mistake.

Niall Stanage is a New York-based journalist who was previously editor-in-chief of Ireland’s main current affairs magazine, Magill.

A War Room for The Times?