Dan Lawton : Journalist

Muzzling Bush’s Legal Mastermind

During a 2005 debate, former Bush legal adviser John Yoo was asked: “If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, is there a law that can stop him?”

Yoo’s answer: “No treaty,” and depending on the president’s belief at the time, no law.

It is similar legal opinions that have made John Yoo one of the most vilified lawyers in America. Yoo’s resumé from his tenure in the White House Office of Legal Counsel reads like a list of bullet points of the most widely criticized policies of Bush’s presidency. It was Yoo who provided the legal backbone to strip enemy combatants of Geneva Convention protections. It was Yoo who validated Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. It was Yoo who argued that the president was not subject to the War Crimes Act. And most notably, it was Yoo who authored a slew of memos deeming waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques legal.

For his actions, Yoo has been pilloried by the left as a sadistic tyrant who eviscerated the Constitution. The U.S. Justice Department has recommended his disbarment. He has been sued by the mother of U.S. detainee Jose Padilla, and officials in both Spain and Germany have brought war crimes charges against him.

Will Bunch Teaches John Yoo a Lesson About Appropriate Public Discourse

Will Bunch Teaches John Yoo a Lesson About Appropriate Public Discourse

For these reasons, one might think Yoo’s prospects for future employment were dim. However, his past didn’t stop the Philadelphia Inquirer – Yoo’s hometown newspaper – from hiring the controversial lawyer to write a monthly column. Yoo’s writings, published under the headline “Closing Arguments,” are primarily about law. His most recent column argued against President Obama’s assertion that he will appoint a new Supreme Court justice who uses empathy in the courtroom.

Before serving in the Bush administration, Yoo served as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His vast legal scholarship focused on U.S. foreign relations, international law and the Constitution’s separation of powers. He also wrote two books on foreign affairs and the War on Terror. Yoo even had a short stint as journalist; he spent a summer interning at The Wall Street Journal between college and law school. But for Will Bunch, a writer for The Philadelphia Daily News, Yoo’s credentials don’t make the cut for columnist material.

In a scathing blog post, Bunch harshly criticized the decision to hire Yoo. “As an American citizen, I am still reeling from the knowledge that our government tortured people in my name,” Bunch said. “As a journalist, the fact that my byline and John Yoo’s are now rolling off the same printing press is adding insult to injury.”

As a journalist and an American citizen, I couldn’t disagree more. The Philadelphia Inquirer has voiced an editorial opinion against harsh interrogation techniques; the fact that it would hire a law scholar who holds the opposite viewpoint is a testament to its commitment to promoting a marketplace of ideas. Too often, newspapers abandon rigorous discourse on the opinion page for an echo chamber of rants. Harold Jackson, the opinion editor of the Inquirer, said the paper has been adding more conservative columnists to provide ideological balance. “It means we aren’t afraid to let people hear what the other side has to say,” Jackson said. “We think most of our readers aren’t afraid, either.”

I wish Jackson was correct, but unfortunately many Americans don’t want discourse that challenges their belief structure. They’d rather write Yoo off as a sadistic yahoo and argue for his removal from the Inquirer than actually hear the basis for his political philosophy.

Bunch argues that the inclusion of Yoo in the Inquirer’s editorial page is another example of what he calls “on one hand, on the other hand journalism,” a practice in which newspapers provide equal time and authority to ideas regardless of their merits. This observation makes the grossly inaccurate assumption that Bunch or the staff of the Inquirer are the only ones qualified to pass judgment on the complexity of Yoo’s legal memos – they aren’t. However, Yoo is eminently qualified to provide a conservative interpretation of executive power and international law.

To suggest that editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer should make a moral judgment to prohibit discussions about legal issues and accordingly exclude Yoo’s voice for the paper is absurd. And to drape what is clearly an attempt in political censorship under the guise of patriotism is not only disingenuous, but a complete bastardization of what a free press is intended to provide.

Let me make this crystal clear: I don’t agree with what John Yoo has to say, but I find his opinions nowhere near as detestable as those who seek to muzzle him because he doesn’t fulfill their standard of appropriate speech. To remove Yoo would sully the history of debate that has made newspapers such a vibrant and important part of American culture. As someone who believes in the promise of journalism, I simply cannot tolerate that.

This column was printed in the Oregon Daily Emerald on May 18.  Props to Patrick Finney for the illustration.

Related Post:  John Yoo is Not a Nice Guy, Especially When He’s Filling Your Coffin With Insects



4 Responses to “Muzzling Bush’s Legal Mastermind”

  1. Phil says:

    I think John Yoo is a sadistic yahoo and that torture is never valid under any circumstance as explicitly circumscribed in the Constitution. However, let’s leave that argument go for a second. At the end of the day, this is not only a free speech decision, but also one of business ethics and profit. That being said, I think you’re wrong on this one, Dan. Here’s my reasoning…

    I think primarily the Philadelphia Inquirer is a business and is there to make money – the question of an informed citizenry is a tertiary one at this juncture. Sure, from a legal angle, hiring this guy is okay and I definitely think that it’s wrong for people to have a knee jerk reaction to this sort of thing. However, perhaps the Inquirer should be listening to its readership. If so many people have a problem with this guy, perhaps it’s a valid concern. Although journalistic opinion should challenge readers, if people find one person (or opinion for that matter) so objectionable, perhaps the paper should respond to that readership and dump the guy.

    It’s easy to think about this issue as a simplistic, free speech issue, but I don’t think that it is. In the abstract, it’s a intellectually debatable issue. In the specific, however, it’s anything but. And think about this from the other side of the spectrum; if there was an Iraqi or Afghani paper arguing that it was okay to torture American military personnel (which, as an aside they probably do anyway, but Yoo and the Bush administration’s legal precedents will make this thing far easier to justify both domestically and internationally), you’d probably find the guy writing those articles morally reprehensible. And justifiably so. Putting aside my moral consternation for a second…

    I think it’s also a business decision at the end of the day. If the Inquirer wants to print invective from an amoral scumbag (i’m editorializing, but let’s be honest here) – that’s their right. But it’s also my right as a reader not to read it and to boycott it (and encourage others to do so). Newspapers are dying for a lot of people because they’re cluttered with shit that spring from the “official” line of thinking. Simply put, they treat their readers like idiots and don’t challenge they by putting anything remotely true into their contents. And in this age of failing newspaper revenues, I’d posit that it’s decisions like this that are accelerating waning confidence in the press.

    And if you want to talk about differences of opinion, let’s do that. Let the Inquirer print a columnist that openly states govn’t culpability in 9/11. Or one that accuses Israel of running US foreign policy. Or one that argues in favor of secession. It won’t happen. Yet, all these opinions probably much enjoy higher favorability than torture in the American consciousness, but they’ll never see the light of day in the paper – that bastion of “objectivity.” They’re outside the stream of “proper” discourse that’s been set up by the newsmedia (but hell, I think they’re all far more intellectually meritorious than torture). So, all opinions are equal, but some opinions are more equal than others.

    And sorry to prattle on, but one more thing: Frankly, I don’t think it’s censorship in this instance. The Inquirer is responsible to their readership and trying to make a buck – not to some phony notion of “balance.” In the “marketplace of ideas” so frequently championed, the best and most noble ideas rise to the top based on their virtues, while the less noble sink in a cesspool of popular discourse. Objectivity as it were isn’t some god-ordained idea delivered to us on high. We created it and we define it. Let the people decide – and vote with their dollars as they say. As long as the press doesn’t come running to the American taxpayer, hat in hand, begging for a bailout because they print crap that people don’t want to read, let them print what and who they want. Just don’t expect people to swallow tripe based on some phony notion of free speech.

  2. Tina says:

    I agree with the business-decision argument Phil makes, though one angle to that is there’s no such thing as bad press. I imagine a few folks out there will pick up the Inquirer just to see “what the hell that asshole Yoo is saying now.” And for that reason alone, as long as the guy is articulate and accurate, I’d probably publish him too.

    I like your use of the term “echo chamber,” Dan, because it highlights the idea that printing stuff that facilitates that effect only contributes to the delinquency of the readership. But sadly, at the end of the day, you’ve got to go where the demand is if you want a business to survive. If you’ve determined that your readership is mostly a group of liberal ignoramuses who want to see the same shit every day, then embrace it and give the customer what he or she wants–or find another readership that you can cater to profitably.

  3. Dan says:

    I think the business ethics angle is wrong for two reasons:

    For one, like Tina said, there’s no such thing as bad press. I haven’t heard much from the The Inquirer camp about them losing revenue over this. But two, even if we posit for the basis of argument that revenue is germane to this discussion, I think it’s unfair to lump newspapers in as just another business.

    There’s only one business that is explicitly given rights in The Constitution and that’s the press. There’s a fundamental reason for this; it’s so the press can actively promote dissent and criticism. From Paine to Zenger, the founders witnessed the importance of having a free press and the negative ramifications of having it stripped away. So, it’s hard for me to accept that informing the citizenry is a tertiary duty of a newspaper. I think that’s a newspapers main duty, regardless if most media outlets abandon it.

    Secondly, if we follow the logic that “if people find one person (or opinion for that matter) so objectionable, perhaps the paper should respond to that readership and dump the guy,” we are setting a really dangerous precedent for eviscerating public discourse. Imagine how that standard could have manifested in the past or now for that matter.

    If you were a columnist who wrote an anti-segregation article in the Deep South in the sixties–a position that would have made you about as popular as Yoo–should the paper have dumped you due to the objections of its readers?

    Or today, If you are a columnist who writes a pro-choice column in a extremely conservative area, should you be removed from the editorial page because the readers are all pro-life?

    By this logic, we would have no conservative columnists in Eugene or San Francisco and no liberal columnists in the Deep South. What would be the point of even having an op-ed page then? It would just be an echo chamber. Call me an idealist, but I think the point of an opinion page is having a diversity of ideas and letting those ideas combat each other. Yoo’s a smart guy (I doubt anyone would deny that) and he’s not writing columns for The Inquirer about torture, he’s writing them about law. I think that’s a real important distinction to make.

    I’m not saying he’s the greatest hire in the world. But if the Inquirer decides he’s worthwhile, then they shouldn’t succumb to pressure from readers. A newspaper isn’t a brake repair shop or a used car dealership. The customer is not always right. In fact, they rarely are.

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