An interesting byproduct of the so-called Debategate or Briefingate scandal (I wish everyone could agree on the right term) is the revival of the "so's-your-mother" school of logic. We are told--and told and told--that the press is guilty of that most heinious of sins, hypocrisy, for writing about this matter because it sometimes uses purloined documents, too. Moi?
The example most frequently cited is the Pentagon Papers. They were supplied to The New York Times and The Washington Post by Daniel Ellsberg who had helped compile them. It is a Talmudic question as to whether they were stolen since they were already in Ellsberg's possession, but the matter of the press's right to publish them has been--President Reagan's recollection not withstanding--settled by the courts. The president said "it was against the law." Sorry. The Supreme Court said it was not.
That decision was based on the particular rights and obligations of the press, rights and obligations that are different from those of politicians. The obligation of the press is to inform the public. If that means occasionally publishing purloined documents, then so be it. The press, after all, does not take purloined documents and make them available to one party and not another. It does not use them for partisan advantage. It publishes them for all to read.
In this way, the press is no different from some other institutions or professions. If a priest hears the confession of a criminal, he has a higher --or at least different--obligation than the ordinary citizen. The priest says nothing; the ordinary citizen is supposed to report what he knows to the authorities.
The same is true of physicians, psychiatrists, lawyers--even the police themselves. They all have their own particular privileges and obligations, sometimes recognized in both law and tradition, sometimes in one and not the other and sometimes with one in conflict with the other.
There is nothing particularly new about this, nothing particularly shocking. Yet suddenly, lots of people are finding out to their pretended dismay that the press, too, operates under a different set of obligations and rights than do ordinary citizens. The president raised this red herring himself at his most recent news conference. After refusing to characterize the ethics of stealing the opposition's campaign papers, he retreated to the non sequitor of the Pentagon Papers: "Well. . . it probably wasn't too much different than the press rushing into print with the Pentagon Papers, which were stolen."
Newspaper editorials have made the same point and it has been raised inferentially by George Will, who thinks that now is the proper time for the press to reexamine its own ethics and, presumably, lay off questioning those of politicians. As a general rule, Will has a point: self-criticism is always healthy and there is much to criticize in the American press--including, of course, Will's role in preparing Reagan to debate Jimmy Carter.
But the issue here is not press ethics. It is the ethics of those who are now in the government. Not only do they operate under different ethical standards than the press, but even if they did not--even if the press was as bad and hypocritical as can be--that would still not answer the question of where that briefing book came from. For the moment, that is the issue.
All this would not be worth more than a sentence in passing were it not for the fact that the administration is onto something: If it can make Debategate appear to be nothing more than a dispute between the government and the press, something of no conceivable concern to Americans in general, it will appear to be just another intramural squabble--yet another thing they do in Washington.
No one knows yet if Briefingate is anything more than a summertime diversion. It might, after all, amount to nothing. If that is the case, then no one in the administration need worry. But if it turns out to be a major scandal, then the public will once again rely on the press to keep it informed--even if it has to publish purloined papers to do so.