Courageous public discussion
explains much, excuses little
The revelations of uber-leaker Edward Snowden prompted some soul searching at The New York Times.
IN A COURAGEOUS – if overdue – explanation of one of the most enduring mysteries at The New York Times, the public editor on Sunday examined why the paper delayed publishing a vital story that might have influenced the outcome of the 2004 presidential election.
It’s an eight-year old topic arisen anew to the front page: illegal government spying.
The story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (based on information from a source later revealed as a phone company employee) disclosed the massive (and then illegal) surveillance operation mounted by the Bush/Cheney administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
It was held by The Times for 13 months, until, as the column explains, there “were a couple of guns held to its head.”
THE REASON Margaret Sullivan addressed the topic in her column headlined Lessons in a Surveillance Drama Redux is that the revelations of Edward Snowden and the subsequent reporting on his documents have made it relevant again.
“[F]or many Times readers, it still resonates deeply,” Sullivan writes.
Indeed, it does.
The column by Margaret Sullivan addressing the delay in publishing a major scoop on illegal government spying. Click image to enlarge.
“The 13-month delay in publishing the article, a period that spanned a presidential election, continues to bother these readers. Why did The Times, at the urgent request of the administration, wait so long? What does that say about the relationship between the government and the press? Would the same thing happen today?”
She then quotes those most intimately involved in the decision-making process.
“Everyone involved sees the episode as inextricably linked with its moment in time — its proximity to 9/11 and all that followed,” Sullivan summarizes.
“Some also say that a tumultuous era at The Times, after the Jayson Blair scandal and the flawed reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war, may have made editors more cautious.”
Both those episodes were the low point in journalism both at The Times and American media in general.
Then Executive Editor Bill Keller, who made the final decision against running the original story, expands on this point.
“Three years after 9/11, we, as a country, were still under the influence of that trauma, and we, as a newspaper, were not immune,” Mr. Keller said. “It was not a kind of patriotic rapture. It was an acute sense that the world was a dangerous place.”
Indeed, after the attacks the entire American journalism establishment fell in line behind the bombast (and threats) emanating from the White House. Its credibility suffered a grievous wound.
This point was highlighted in 2007 by none other than the CBS News anchorman at the time Dan Rather in an appearance on a must-see episode of the Bill Moyers show Buying the War which aired on April 25, 2007.
Moyers played a clip of Rather (who succeeded Walter Cronkite as ‘the most trusted face’ an American news) appearing on the David Letterman show on Sept. 17, 2001.
“George Bush is the President. He makes the decisions and you know, as just one American wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where,” Rather said, a week after the attacks.
Almost six years later, he tried to clarify.
“I didn’t mean it in a journalistic sense,” he told Moyers. “I know it may have come across that way. I meant it in a sense as an individual citizen.”
But can he separate his two roles this way?
Moyers probed deeper.
“What I was wrestling with that night listening to you is; once we let our emotions out as journalists on the air, once we say, “We’ll line up with the President,” can we ever really say to the country, “The President’s out of line”?”
“Yes. Of course you can,” was Rather’s first response.
But less than a minute later he added:
“[But] this is not an excuse. I don’t think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war. … overall and in the main, there’s no question that we didn’t do a good job.”
So six years ago already, Dan Rather rebutted Bill Keller’s remarks quoted on Sunday.
Glenn Greenwald’s scathing indictment of contemporary journalism published in The Guardian. Click image to enlarge.
FAST FORWARD to the present, the Snowden revelations and the comments of the most important journalist of our time, Glenn Greenwald, who’s reporting in The Guardian in the U.K. blew apart the competition and largely left American media playing catch-up.
In one of his last columns before leaving to set up his own venture, The perfect epitaph for establishment journalism Greenwald on Oct. 14 slammed the obsequious attitude journalists display in their deference to government authority, albeit in another context.
He was writing about an Oct. 13 column by British journalist Chris Blackhurst, “an executive with and, until a few months ago, the editor of the UK daily calling itself ‘The Independent.’
“[The column] contains a headline that says everything that needs to be said about the sickly state of establishment journalism,” Greenwald wrote.
The headline: Edward Snowden’s secrets may be dangerous. I would not have published them.
“In other words, if the government tells me I shouldn’t publish something, who am I as a journalist to disobey? Put that on the tombstone of western establishment journalism. It perfectly encapsulates the death spiral of large journalistic outlets.”
The headline that Greenwald called “a fitting epitaph” for modern journalism. Click image to enlarge.
This is strong language indeed. But he does not stop there:
“Most people, let alone journalists, would be far too embarrassed to admit they harbor such subservient, obsequious sentiments. It’s one thing to accord some deference or presumption of good will to political officials, but the desire to demonstrate some minimal human dignity, by itself, would preclude most people from publicly confessing that they have willingly sacrificed all of their independent judgment and autonomy to the superior, secret decrees of those who wield the greatest power.”
Sullivan and her colleagues did not seem too embarrassed to admit their sentiments during that time, and their courage is laudable.
But the damage done is incalculable.
We and The New York Times can never measure the credibility lost over this episode. It is regrettable in the extreme.
But we can hope that the closing quote from the Washington bureau chief at the time, Philip Taubman, who recommended holding the story, has been learned.
“The old adage, which we violated, is still a good one,” he said. “Always err on the side of publishing.”
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