Asking the Tough Questions

The most patriotic thing journalists can do is tell the truth. That means they should report the news straight and investigate the stories that need the hot lights of TV trained on them, even when it angers some of the lawmakers who control the medium's economic future.

One of those stories is the justification for the war in Iraq and its relationship to the war on terrorism.

Amid fears and charges that Washington had scared some in the media into soft-pedaling criticism of the administration, 60 Minutes
made an important statement with its interview of former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke. Yes, it should have identified that the book Clarke is pitching is published by a Viacom subsidiary, but that does not reduce the importance of the story. Just how important the story was became clear as last week's 9/11 hearings unfolded and the debate heated up.

ABC also aired an interview with Clarke, as well as one with Donald Rumsfeld, the latter featuring some tough questions about the administration's war policies. Kudos to that network, too.

Of note, too, was the criticism of the Bush Administration included in last week's episode of David Kelley's The Practice, which dealt with the tension between free speech and new government powers in the war on terrorism. In the episode, when an anti-Bush protester is confined to a distant "free-speech" zone while supporters are allowed to line the motorcade route, a defense attorney remarks, "I thought the whole country was a free-speech zone." So did we.

Finally, the Radio-Television News Directors Association has slotted Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge as a speaker at next month's annual convention. He can be counted on to recite the speech about the importance of broadcasters' getting out government-issued information in times of national emergency.

But what about the information the administration wants to keep hidden from the public in the name of that oft-invoked terrorism threat? In its short existence, Homeland Security has gotten special exemptions from Freedom of Information Act requests that trouble us, and should trouble everybody.

Now there is talk that other government agencies similarly want to foil journalists who ask for information the Bush Administration doesn't want to discuss. Lucy Dalglish, the head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press fears that broadcasters will let Ridge walk out of the room without asking the tough freedom-of-information questions that should be asked. We can't accept that. They must ask those questions. It's Job One.