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'News War' examines role of press in battle of secrecy vs. disclosure

Former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, now standing trial in Washington, is a key figure in "News War." (Evan Vucci/Associated press)

The tension between the public's right to know and the government's desire to maintain secrecy over sensitive information is profoundly American. It is as old as this country, and no amount of couples therapy can keep the lid on the relationship between media and the executive branch.

The cold war that the two sides had maintained for the past 35 years has been replaced with a hot one by the Bush administration. Players on both sides agree the government is far more aggressive in its pursuit of leaks and punishment of those organizations that publish them than at any time since Richard Nixon failed in 1971 to block The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

"News War," which begins tonight on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) , is Frontline's ambitious four-part series that traces this history and plumbs the shift under Bush. It also examines the brutal transformation from print to digital news delivery that major publications now face along with relentless financial pressures from Wall Street. Finally, it looks at news operations around the globe, including the controversial Arab network Al Jazeera.

It is a huge task and based on the first two episodes -- the only ones available now -- " Frontline " and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, which co produced the series, score a B plus. Veteran documentarian Raney Aronson, who directed and coproduced the pair, gives us a solid hour and a riveting one.

The first is a soup-to-nuts review of the Valerie Plame affair, which became the Judy Miller affair and now the Scooter Libby rodeo. It offers little new to anyone who has read a paper or watched the news over the past couple of years, but packages the story well and reminds us how wrong the mainstream media, led by T he New York Times, was in accepting the government's claim of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The second hour, which runs next week, is great television. It plumbs the tensions over stories that ran in 2005 in The New York Times and the Washington Post exposing highly secret government operations. It is here that the show lives up to its name.

"News War" boasts a grand array of top journalists and government types who debate the ethics of publication in two explosive cases -- NSA wiretapping and secret CIA prisons around the world. Times editor Bill Keller, who OK'd the first, and Post editor Len Downie, who ran with the second, explain their decisions.

Also part of the second episode is the troubling prosecution of two San Francisco Chronicle reporters for protecting their sources in the story they broke about illegal steroid use in baseball. They were personally applauded by Bush for their work only to find themselves facing jail because of his Justice Department. There is no national security at issue here, none of the reasons routinely given when government goes after a reporter.

The stark truth is this administration simply doesn't accept the role of the press as a check and balance to the executive branch. "Congress has a check and balance function. The judiciary does," journalist Ken Auletta recalls being told by then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. "But not the press."

"News War" is a robust look at the dynamic between the two sides. Revelations in the Times and Post damaged the war on terrorism, maintains former CIA acting director John McLaughlin, who concedes they also delivered public benefit.

"Life isn't simple," he says.

"Not in a democracy," adds correspondent Lowell Bergman.

"Not in a democracy," echoes McLaughlin.

Sam Allis can be reached at