December 6, 2001
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A front-page article in today's New York Times begins, "The Justice Department has refused to let the F.B.I. check its records to determine whether any of the 1,200 people detained after the Sept. 11 attacks had bought guns, F.B.I. and Justice Department officials say. The department made the decision in October after the F.B.I. asked to examine the records it maintains on background checks to see if any detainees had purchased guns in the United States."
It's not clear from either sentence who "it" is. Do the records belong to the Justice Department or to the FBI? You have to read about 15 paragraphs down into the article to find out that they are FBI records. (The FBI, is, of course, part of the Justice Department, but the two lead sentences create a distinction that seems important for the purpose of the story.)
The Times headline is "Justice Dept. Bars Use of Gun Checks in Terror Inquiry." But the headline might as well be "Congress Bars Use of Gun Checks in Terror Inquiry"; the Justice Department position, the Times article eventually makes clear, is that the department is merely obeying the strictures of the law.
The Times article quotes a gun-control advocate, a California police chief and Senator Schumer, but it never quotes a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union. In fact, the tone of today's article on the use of the gun-check records is jarringly at odds with the rest of the Times coverage on the detainees, military tribunals and the terrorism investigation. When it comes to questioning or detaining immigrants or monitoring mosques, the Times routinely expresses outrage that the FBI would dare impinge on civil liberties, and outraged civil libertarians are duly quoted. Yet when the Bush Justice Department for once errs on the side of civil liberties, the Times summons up an outraged police chief and can't find anyone to praise the administration for respecting civil liberties.
It's not that the use of the gun-check records isn't a newsworthy topic; it is. It's just that the Times treatment of the Bush administration is so unremittingly negative. If the administration takes an aggressive approach at the expense of civil liberties, the Times quotes the yelping civil libertarians. If the administration takes a restrained approach aimed at preserving civil liberties, the Times quotes the yelping people who want a tougher stance against terrorism.
The Times portrays this as an example of the hypocrisy of the Justice Department. The newspaper reports, "Even as the department is instituting tough new measures to detain individuals suspected of links to terrorism, they say, it is being unusually solicitous of foreigners' gun rights." Yet the Times is just as vulnerable to a similar charge of hypocrisy. Even as the newspaper is harshly criticizing the tough new measures to detain individuals suspected of links to terrorism, it is being unusually solicitous of those who would trample on foreigners' gun rights.
One of the critics that the Times quotes, apparently in all seriousness, derides the administration's decision as "absurd and unconscionable" and "based on a right-to-bear-arms mentality."
Presumably the "right-to-bear-arms mentality" also afflicted the framers of the Bill of Rights that is enshrined in the Constitution. Can one honestly imagine the Times running a quote from someone who is complaining about the FBI's refusal to monitor all mosques, calling that decision "absurd and unconscionable" and "based on a right-to-free-exercise-of-religion mentality"?
Missing Juror: The front-page New York Times account of the conviction of A. Alfred Taubman in connection with price-fixing at Sotheby's today leaves out the comment of one of the jurors in the case. "In my heart, in my mind, deep down, I don't believe he is guilty," that juror, Lydell Durant, told Steve Dunleavy of the New York Post after the jury announced it had found Taubman guilty. "I think it was the wrong verdict."
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