The Messenger Takes a Beating


President Bush has said many times that news stories that reveal his administration’s secrets are helping the nation’s sworn enemies and must be stopped. He has ordered up yet another investigation, this time into a New York Times story about how he skirted the law to widen the government’s eavesdropping on Americans. The story revealed that the president, in a secret directive soon after 9-11, circumvented the special federal court that is supposed to weigh and decide such requests for privacy invasions. Those judges, unaware until the Times story appeared, are now protesting that the White House has abused its power.

Most Americans, including reporters, agree that security must be enhanced when the nation is threatened, as in times of war. But in Bush’s response to terrorism, he has imposed more secrecy on all government information, not just security data, than any president before him. This presidency has left no doubt that it wants to label as un-American anyone who publishes information that challenges official pronouncements.

The Times story about government eavesdropping is still unfolding. Its authors are reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen. Their first story ran on December 16, and they have since added fresh articles with new information showing that the eavesdropping was more extensive than previously imagined. Their work is an example of superior investigative reporting about sensitive security and intelligence matters.

But their work has also drawn attention for a quite different reason: The Times acknowledged in the first story that it had held the piece for a year because the White House had asked it to keep the story secret for security reasons. But after gathering more information and leaving out some details to accommodate government concerns, the decision was made to publish, notwithstanding another request to withhold the story made by the president in a White House meeting December 5 with the Times publisher, top editor, and Washington bureau chief. Also, Risen had been working on a book about national intelligence operations, titled State of War. It was published a week ago and has revealed other embarrassing stories about failed intelligence gathering by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war.

So though the Times‘ news stories continue to provide valuable information to an American public grown uneasy about the war, critics have arisen from both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, Bush allies are calling the Times dishonorable for publishing the stories, while on the left and from some in the journalism community, a number of voices have turned on the Times for keeping the story under wraps for a year.

And there’s yet another journalism issue in play—the same one that has enveloped Bob Woodward of The Washington Post in the Plamegate investigation. The question is: When a reporter for a newspaper or any news organization is working on a book, especially a book that involves grave government decisions, such as going to war, should that reporter write news stories immediately for the public as he comes across the information or should he save some revelations for the book to improve its chances of success?

There are many opinions. My belief is that when you learn something newsworthy, you should write it, not hold it. You can write more stories later, incrementally, as you learn more about the subject. Books are certainly valuable too, for they allow for greater research and reflection. But in a world that moves at higher and higher speeds, I think the public needs to receive principled, confirmed information as soon as possible. Waging war is not school yard Frisbee.

The Times‘ own ombudsman, Byron Calame, jumped hard on Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, for refusing to respond to 28 questions he had sent them by e-mail to get a more detailed explanation of the story’s evolution. In his January 1 column, Calame called Keller’s initial and only explanations “woefully inadequate” and used a very loaded word—”stonewalling”—to describe the behavior toward him “despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.”

I have been arguing for greater press transparency for many years and for including within important stories better explanations of our news-gathering processes. Also, as a Times alumnus aware of its impact on the wider journalism community, I have not been shy about critiquing the paper. But in my judgment, I felt the Times ombudsman went overboard and also did a good deal of nit-picking that wasn’t useful. Further, coming as it did after so many political blowhards and their op-ed and Internet henchmen had attacked the paper, some of them calling for Sulzberger’s and Keller’s dismissals, Calame’s dissertation had the sound, intended or not, of piling on. Like Calame, I certainly want to know more about the story’s history—and I think that at some point we will learn more details. But the public interest is primary and, by that measure, the big picture has to be the strong, valuable reporting of Lichtblau and Risen. The other issues, though surely significant for the profession of journalism, are sidebars.

Being the nation’s flagship newspaper, the Times, like all front-runners, will always be a target —sometimes justifiably, often not—especially now that the Internet has given birth to a level of scrutiny that the press has never experienced before. And then add to that a presidency that seems happiest when reporters are being subpoenaed or jailed for revealing vital public information that Bush minions have stamped “secret.”

History gives us evidence of more responsible presidencies. From 1945 to 1952, Harry Truman, a World War I combat veteran, was in the Oval Of
fice. The nation, still recovering from World War II, suddenly found itself at war with North Korea. Truman tightened controls on military intelligence and other security matters, but he never raised secrecy to its current level nor did he appropriate to himself—as this president has—powers that the Constitution and national tradition have conferred instead upon Congress and the courts.

To understand what this White House is about, one has to accept that the path George W. Bush has chosen isn’t really about secrecy. And it isn’t about an unruly or “left-wing” press. It’s about power, presidential power. This president would like to establish a permanent rulership by his particular imperialist wing of the Republican Party. Even his father, George H.W. Bush, doesn’t endorse his global overreaching. He thought his son’s Iraq war was foolhardy and reckless. The father and son apparently don’t confer anymore on policy matters.

The son says he now consults a “higher father.” He has brought religion full-force into the White House and mixed it with an imperial ideology. Describing this volatile soup, Bill Moyers, a man of religion, recently observed that while it may not make you wrong, it will surely make you “blind.” And it cannot work as a template for a democracy, for in order to implement such a doctrine, the leader has to try, in effect, to make the public blind as well.

The religion of the press, contrarily, must be to give the public sight—and insight. And that is why this White House has declared war on the press.