Journalists should be in the business of providing
timely information to the public. But some notably at the top rungs of
the profession have become players in the power games of the nation's
capital. And more than a few seem glad to imitate the officeholders who want
to decide what the public shouldn't know.
When the New York Times front page broke the story of the National
Security Agency's domestic spying, the newspaper's editors had good reason to
feel proud. Or so it seemed. But there was a troubling backstory: The Times
had kept the scoop under wraps for a long time.
The White House did what it could including, as a last-ditch move,
an early December presidential meeting that brought Times publisher Arthur
Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office in its
efforts to persuade the Times not to report the story. The good news
is that those efforts ultimately failed. The bad news is that they were successful
for more than a year.
"The decision to hold the story last year was mine," Keller said,
according to a Washington Post article that appeared 10 days after the
Times' blockbuster Dec. 16 story. He added: "The decision to run
the story last week was mine. I'm comfortable with both decisions. Beyond that,
there's just no way to have a full discussion of the internal procedural twists
that media writers find so fascinating without talking about what we knew, when,
and how and that I can't do."
From all indications, the Times had the basic story in hand before
the election in November 2004, when Bush defeated challenger John Kerry. In
other words, if those running the New York Times had behaved like journalists
instead of political players if they had exposed this momentous secret
instead of keeping it there are good reasons to believe the outcome of
the presidential election might have been different.
Chiseled into the stone facades of some courthouses is the credo
"Justice delayed is justice denied." The same might be said of
journalism, which derives much of its power from timeliness. When
egregiously delayed, journalism is denied or at least severely
Yet quite a few prominent journalists have expressed a strange kind of media
solidarity with the Times' delay of the NSA story for so long.
Consider how the Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest,
for instance, responded to a request for "your opinion on the NY Times
holding the domestic spying story for a year," during a Dec. 22 online
chat. "Well, first: I don't have a clue why they did so," Priest replied.
"But I would give them the benefit of the doubt that it was for a good
reason and, as their story said, they do more reporting within that year to
satisfy themselves about certain things. Having read the story and the follow-ups,
it's unclear why this would damage a valuable capability. Again, if the government
doesn't think the bad guys believe their phones are tapped, they underestimate
Also opting to "give them the benefit of the doubt," some usually
insightful media critics have gone out of their way to voice support for the
Times' news management.
Deferring to the judgment of the executive editor of the New York Times
may be akin to deferring to the judgment of the chief executive of the United
States government. And as it happens, in this case, the avowed foreign policy
goals of each do not appear to be in fundamental conflict on the meaning
of the Iraq war or the wisdom of enshrining a warfare state. Pretenses aside,
the operative judgments from the New York Times' executive editor go
way beyond the purely journalistic.
"So far, the passion to investigate the integrity of American intelligence-gathering
belongs mostly to the doves, whose motives are subject to suspicion and who,
in any case, do not set the agenda," Bill Keller wrote in an essay that
appeared in the Times on June 14, 2003, shortly before he became executive
editor. And Keller concluded: "The truth is that the information-gathering
machine designed to guide our leaders in matters of war and peace shows signs
of being corrupted. To my mind, this is a worrisome problem, but not because
it invalidates the war we won. It is a problem because it weakens us for the
wars we still face."
(By the way, Keller's phrase "the war we won" referred to the Iraq
The story of the NSA's illicit domestic spying is not over. More
holes are appearing in the Bush administration's damage-control
claims. Media critics who affirm how important the story is but
make excuses for the long delay in breaking it are part of a
rationalizing process that has no end.
"The domestic spying controversy is a story of immense importance,"
Sydney Schanberg writes in the current Village Voice. The long delay
before the Times published this "story of immense importance"
does not seem to bother him much. "The paper had held the story for a year
at the administration's pleading but decided, after second thoughts and more
reporting, that its importance required publication." Such wording should
look at least a bit weird to journalistic eyes, but Schanberg doesn't muster
any criticism, merely commenting: "From where I stand (I'm a Times
alumnus), the paper should get credit for digging it out and publishing it."
Professional loyalties can't explain the extent of such uncritical media criticism
from journalists. Many, like Schanberg, want to concentrate on the villainy
of the Bush administration as if it hasn't been aided and abetted by
the New York Times' delay. Leading off his Dec. 24 column with a blast
at George W. Bush for "asserting the divine right of presidents,"
the Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten proceeded with an essay
that came close to asserting the divine right of executive editors to hold back
vital stories for a very long time. Dismissing substantive criticism as the
work of "paranoids," Rutten gave only laurels to the sovereign: "The
New York Times deserves thanks and admiration for the service it has
done the nation."
A cogent rebuttal to such testimonials came on Dec. 26 from Miami Herald
columnist Edward Wasserman, who wrote: "One of the more durable fallacies
of ethical thought in journalism is the notion that doing right means holding
back, that wrong is averted by leaving things out, reporting less or reporting
nothing. When in doubt, kill the quote, hold the story that's the ethical
choice. But silence isn't innocent. It has consequences. In this case, it protected
those within the government who believe that the law is a nuisance, that they
don't have to play by the rules, by any rules, even their own."
While many journalists seem eager to downplay the importance of the Times'
refusal to publish what it knew without long delay, Wasserman offers clarity:
"Didn't the delay do harm? We know that thousands of people were subject
to governmental intrusion that officials thought couldn't be justified even
under a highly permissive set of laws. We also know that because knowledge of
this illegality was kept confined to a small circle of initiates, the political
system's response was postponed more than a year, and its ability to correct
a serious abuse of power was thwarted. I don't know what the Times' brass
was thinking. Maybe they just lost their nerve. Maybe they didn't want to tangle
with a fiercely combative White House right before an election. But I do believe
that withholding accurate information of great public importance is the most
serious action any news organization can take. The reproach 'You knew
and you didn't tell us?' reflects a fundamental professional betrayal."
Perhaps in 2007 we will learn that the New York Times had an explosive
story about other ongoing government violations of civil liberties or some other
crucial issue, but held it until after the November 2006 congressional elections.
In that case, quite a few media critics and other journalists could recycle
their pieces about giving the Times the benefit of the doubt and appreciating
the quality of the crucial story that finally appeared.