To illustrate a point, let me tell a quick story:

On June 23 , The New York Times ran a story on SWIFT, the Bush Treasury Department’s terror finance tracking program. Most of the information had been revealed in other publications, and insiders knew that the program was no longer producing much. The Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times also ran stories on SWIFT.

Nonetheless, needing to change the headlines, Bush and his agents attacked the NYT. The official rhetoric was merely stern, citing unspecified damage to our national security. But Bush’s most popular and enthusiastic defenders were not so circumspect. Charges of "treason" bounced around the conservative cable tv and blog circuit (again). You mean treason, like the high crime punishable by death? Says radio talk show host Melanie Morgan: “I would have no problem with [NYT editor Bill Keller] being sent to the gas chamber.”

So, the NYT was accused of deliberately helping terrorists. Freaky enough. Then things took a turn for the Super Freaky.

On June 30, the NYT published a puff piece in its travel section about St. Michaels, Maryland, where both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have vacation homes. The piece included a picture of Rumsfeld’s vacation driveway. Conservative pundits charged — really — that the NYT was deliberately trying to draw al Qaeda’s attention to an opportunity to assassinate the Vice President and Defense Secretary. One blogger went so far as to post the home address of the NYT photographer on the piece. Another said this of NYT staff:

Do you have an idea where they live? Go hunt them down and do America a favor. Get their photo, street address, where they shop, anything you can dig up, and send it to the Autonomist. This is your chance to be famous – grab for the brass ring.

[Note: The proprietor seems to have taken the above post down. Guess he didn’t like the publicity.]

OK, we are clearly to Super Freaky here. But the train doesn’t stop at Super Freaky. We’re headed all the way to North Freakytown. Hang on.

It turns out now that Rumsfeld explicitly gave permission to the NYT to take the photographs. The Secret Service itself officially stated that the story posed no threat. Case closed, right? Bush flacks apologized profusely for the ignorant outburst, no? And then STFU?

Oh no. They insisted that despite Rumsfeld’s permission and the professional opinion of the people guarding Cheney, the NYT was still motivated by blood lust. Indeed, they went on to organize a protest in front of the NYT’s D.C. building. Sixteen people showed up — not counting media, which more than doubled the number.

What point is illustrated by this tragi-comic tale? I’ll save that for the next post.