Originally Published: July 20, 2003 10:30 a.m.
By now most Americans have heard of the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, both of which have the reassuring ring of a Department of Human Resources.
In my experience, there's not much human about human-resource departments, and zillion-page legal documents detailing ways to enforce patriotism and secure the homeland sound like instruments that might guarantee the opposite effect.
If securing the homeland means undermining freedom, as both documents have the potential to do, then what's to secure against whom? And what's to feel patriotic about a country that surveils reporters and blocks public access to information?
While we were busy trying to determine whether Scott Peterson killed his pregnant wife — desperate to get back to normal, I guess — we napped through some bracing legislation that potentially threatens our most precious resource: a free press.
Not everyone was napping, of course. First Amendment watchdog groups, as well as some legislators and journalists, have been paying close attention. But I'm probably safe in guessing that most Americans don't know — or care — much about how these new government vehicles affect their access to information or what it means.
Therein may lie our biggest problem as we try to balance national security with freedom — not the government's cudgel approach to fighting terrorism but a complacent populace failing to notice in part because the media fail to tell them.
Here's an example of what's happened. The Homeland Security Act contains an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for companies that voluntarily provide "critical" infrastructure information to the Department of Homeland Security.
The idea seems sound on the surface. Homeland Security is trying to assess how companies might be vulnerable to terrorist attack and help seek appropriate remedies. But the promise of immunity from Freedom of Information inquiries potentially could also provide immunity from civil liability if the information reveals problems or wrongdoing.
Of course, such a risk presumes that Homeland Security willingly would be complicit in a company's wrongdoing, which seems unlikely. Surely the war on terrorism provides enough headaches without Uncle Sam helping creepy corporations behave badly. On the other hand, "corporate creepiness" and "government corruption" have been known to share an entrée.
I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories and don't believe for a second that Bush officials sat down and said, "Let's screw the press and the American people and kill freedom as we know it. We'll call it the Patriot Act!"
However, Congress enacted the Patriot Act hurriedly six weeks after the terrorist attacks, and government's natural impulse in times of crisis is to close records. As government's natural enemy, the media's job to make sure government fails in that endeavor. Not because we have an insatiable appetite for mongering, as some perceive, but because — another quick reminder — all other freedoms derive from freedom of the press.
Unfortunately, that connection seems to have slipped America's mind. For good reason, many view the media as a prurient pest, promiscuous and unreliable. Jayson Blair needs no introduction. Scott Petersen's trial has become the summer blockbuster, according to an Associated Press story that reported 28 TV cameras at a recent hearing.
The same story noted that CNN's Larry King has discussed the case on 23 shows and Fox's Greta Van Susteren has interviewed panelists about the story 42 times. It is little wonder that few outside journalism have noticed or protested the federal government's incursions into the once-sacrosanct, quintessentially American territory of a free press.
Today's challenge, it seems, is not only to preserve public access to information, but also to restore public respect for the media. Scott Peterson's trial, we can live without, but freedom of information is something else.
(E-mail Kathleen Parker at email@example.com.)