“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

– Thomas Jefferson

That famous Jefferson quote sums up perfectly the freedom-loving spirit of the Founding Fathers, who saw an independent press as vital to self-government. But Jefferson also had bitter battles with the press over what he called malicious lies, and wrote the following: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Jefferson’s love-hate relationship with the press is worth remembering in light of the current, and misguided, call for a criminal prosecution of The New York Times for publishing a story on the government’s secret mining of bank data to track terrorism financing.

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., labeling The Times “absolutely disgraceful,” urged the attorney general to probe whether the paper violated the Espionage Act. President Bush and Vice President Cheney both blasted The Times, saying the paper revealed a program that helps keep America safe, though neither mentioned prosecution.

A conservative magazine said The Times should lose its White House press credentials.

There are two issues here, and it’s important to separate them. The first is whether The Times, and The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, which also printed reports on the subject the same day, had the legal right to publish the articles. That to me is a no-brainer – of course they did. That’s the essence of a free press – a decision independent of the government. Short of libel, publishing is a form of free speech rightly given a very wide berth.

The second issue is whether The Times should have printed the article. Just because we have a right doesn’t mean we have to exercise it. Judgment is the issue. And The Times’ judgment to publish rests on some good arguments, and some very shaky ones.

Bill Keller, the paper’s editor, defended publication as a public service. He said the decision came after “weeks of discussion” with the administration, which argued the program was effective and legal and that revealing it “would put its usefulness at risk.”

In a letter to readers, Keller effectively countered those arguments and, given my own prejudice toward publishing, had me on his side. But then he introduced a new reason, and that one is flawed.

Keller claimed the Bush administration has “embarked on a number of broad, secret programs aimed at combating terrorism, often without seeking new legal authority or submitting to the usual oversight.”

There are holes in that claim: The first is, the data for the program, as The Times reported, were obtained by subpoenas served on a bank clearinghouse. The second problem is that Congress was informed of the program and many members have demanded even stronger measures.

Most troubling, Keller’s criticism of the White House reinforces the suspicion that The Times’ cover-to-cover contempt for Bush played a role in its decision. The hint of a double standard arises, with Keller’s language suggesting a different decision might have been made had another president been involved.

And that’s the rub. The Times has become such a shrill, anti-Bush partisan that it has no credibility as an honest broker. And while I defend its right to publish the article, the sloppy claims and a track record of editorial bias leave me wishing it had not.

Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001; e-mail: Mgoodwinedit.nydailynews.com.

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