Terrorism Trials & Investigations

Unsporting to Shoot Fish in a Barrel?

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, October 24, 2011, 8:03 AM

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Kenneth Anderson writes of my post yesterday, "What should most concern the Times are the couple of emails I’ve received from several eminent professors, smart and intellectually scrupulous folks whose opinion I value a lot, deeply committed progressives, who have asked that I urge Wittes to greater restraint, because it’s unsporting to shoot fish in a barrel."

Ken here is making an important point about the disdain for the Times implicit in his correspondents' request. It should be of great concern to the Times that distinguished progressives consider it too soft a target to be worth my time.

But Ken's correspondents also have a point about my quixotic little campaign that seems to me worth addressing briefly. Going after the Times on factual matters is, indeed, a fight in what the military folks call a target-rich environment. Yes, I admit it: There's something cheap about fly-specking work product that has clearly been tossed off by people who don't care about whether "and" means "or" or 47 equals 42--much less who vacillate between bombastic assertions that non-criminal detention is clearly illegal and frank statements that it is within the president's lawful powers. I would rather, much rather, engage the Times over the normative substance of the paper's ideas.

But it seems to me that the Times' serial difficulty with facts is important--particularly because some of the factual problems the paper has are intentional. That is, they result not from honest mistakes but from willful efforts to mislead the paper's readers on important points. My little campaign began not over the difference between 42 and 47 but over the paper's efforts over a protracted period of time to describe lawful detentions as unlawful--without reference to a growing body of law that clearly stands for its legality. The Times editorial writers have a particularly loud and important megaphone. That megaphone involves a trust--a trust both about taking a certain care with facts and, particularly, about not actively misrepresenting them.

As long as the paper violates the trust, the fish in the barrel will continue to die--however unsporting the combat may be.