Journalists Should Expose Secrets, Not Keep Them
By Norman Solomon
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 28 December 2005
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 back-story: the Times had kept the scoop under wraps for a
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's blockbuster December 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."
By 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's delay of the NSA story for
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
December 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 the enemy!"
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's 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's 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
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's delay.
Leading off his December 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 December 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's 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's 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
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.