Whither The Unwritten MSM Constitution?

Glenn Reynolds writes:

THE NEW YORK TIMES’ PUBLIC EDITOR, Byron Calame, criticizes the Times’ handling of the NSA story. Jeff Jarvis calls Calame’s column “almost tough,” and points to this post by Jay Rosen.

The Times’ behavior on this story, and the Plame story, has undermined the unwritten “National Security Constitution” regarding leaks and classified information. Since the Pentagon Papers, at least, the rule has been that papers could publish classified information in a whistleblowing mode, but that they would be sensitive to national security concerns. In return, the federal government would tread lightly in investigating where the leaks came from. But the politicization of the coverage, and the outright partisanship of the Times, has put paid to that arrangement. It’s not clear to me that the country is better served by the new arrangement, but unwritten constitutions require a lot of self-discipline on the part of the various players, and that sort of discipline is no longer to be found in America’s leadership circles.

* * *

Andrew Sullivan seems to think that I’m blaming the NYT editors for everything. No. If, in fact, the Administration broke the law, then there’s a story here, though that remains a pretty big “if” at this point. But he goes on to ask the same question I did, and everyone else has: Why did they wait for a year if it was such a big deal? And if reporting the story a year ago would have been too damaging to national security, why isn’t it too damaging now?

And there’s another point: A few years ago, I’d have given the NYT the benefit of the doubt. Now — because of the paper’s bad behavior of the past few years, which Andrew played a major role in pointing out — I don’t. That absolutely is the fault of the Times’ editors.

And its ownership.

The Times, of course, doesn’t have to tell anyone anything. It’s a private company. But as has been mentioned more times than you want to hear, the self-anointed Fifth Estate considers itself a thing above the normal citizen, and indeed the “unwritten constitution” referred to by Instapundit is premised on just that. Those unwritten constititutions really are a problem, though, just as Glenn says: in all but the most unusual cases, say perhaps England, they fall apart because the incentive to cheat for short-term gains — especially when faced with what at the moment looks like a threat to the Arrangement — is just too great. And maybe because they lack, at the end of the day, that legitimacy that genuine constitutions have.

Is “anarchy” in the press a good thing? And is oligopoly its only alternative?

UDPATE: TigerHawk seems to agree, and in fulsome detail. (Via Instapundit, again.)

UPDATE: More reasons why special privileges merely for owning a printing press may not be such a great idea.

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Author:Ron Coleman

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