When and why to tell secrets

Five journalism deans issued a group letter in the Washington Post defending The New York Times and its decision to reveal secrets in the Swift banking antiterrorism story. “When it doubt,” says the headline, “publish.”

I would have hoped for more from these people, in particular, more than just a defense of one American editor. I’d have liked to see them them try to present a set of guidelines governing when secrets should and should not be revealed. In an earlier post, I wanted to see that from the editors involved, but academics should be able to better distance themselves from the fray of the moment and see where standards should lie. Or far bettter, I’d have thought that the heads of academic institutions studying and teaching journalism would have tried to spark a deeper debate about the responsibilities of journalists regarding both secrets and security. This isn’t as simple as saying, “when in doubt, publish.” This needs study and debate.

The deans start their piece saying, “It is the business — and the responsibility — of the press to reveal secrets.” I fear that makes it sound as if the only true mission of journalism is to reveal secrets: scoops define journalism.
Well, yes, revealing secrets is part of the business and responsibility of journalism. But it is also the business and responsibility of the press to be part of the community. That is the balance that needs to be reached. The deans write:

The journalist’s dilemma, then, lies in choosing between the risk that would result from disclosure and the parallel risk of keeping the public in the dark — a quandary that has become all the more pointed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As deans charged with imparting the values of journalism to the next generation of reporters and editors, we favor disclosure when there are not strong reasons against it.

But disclosure of what? They’re not addressing the what and why, only the how. Just because it is a secret does not mean that it should be revealed (or that it should be secret). Secrecy is a label and limitation put on information. But it’s the substance of the information that is still the real issue: What do we need to know and why do we need to know it? That’s the question. That is news judgment. That is what journalism is really all about.

The deans decide that the press should reveal the banking process but not reveal Valerie Plame’s identity. But they don’t explain why they make each decision. They only say:

We believe that in the case of a close call, the press should publish when editors are convinced that more damage will be done to our democratic society by keeping information away from the American people than by leveling with them.

So there is another judgment implicit in that: editors deciding what is and is not in the interest of the security of the community. So here, too, we need guidelines, study, and debate. How do editors make that decision? On what basis? With what risk? With what responsibility?

There’s more to respond to in the specifics of the deans’ piece. But I’d rather rise up and talk about the underlying questions and issues in these episodes so we learn more for the future.

This can’t be handled in a lecture. It needs a seminar.

* * *

On my iPod, I just listened to the latest TimesTalks from The New York Times, this one from a session commemorating the anniversary of the Pentagon Papers case. The start of it was a pretty unbearable string of self-lionizing introductions and spiels. The best part came from the First Amendment’s best friend and the attorney who came in to represent the Times when their own law firm fired them, Floyd Abrams.

The subtext of the session was, of course, that The Times was once again fighting the righteous fight against secrecy in the NSA “eavesdropping” and Swift banking stories. But there are important differences that need to be addressed. The Pentagon Papers were a history. Though the Vietnam War was, of course, still underway, the papers did not reveal details of current operations. The risk they brought was embarrassment. The NSA and Swift stories are, instead, about revealing current operations. The risk and responsibilities are different.

Once again, this is why we need that debate. When’s the seminar?

* * *

One more related observation: The Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative with the same five journalism institutions represented in that letter to the Washington Post, above, is initiating reporting projects with students at those schools tackling homeland security, privacy, immigration, and the military abroad. The premise is that these are underreported stories; I could argue the point but I’ll hold that for another day.

One of those projects, at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, covers privacy, civil liberties, and homeland security. Here’s the project blog. So far — and in fairness, it’s just beginning — they seem to be concentrating on the narrative we most often see in this story: privacy and civil liberties are at risk at the hands of homeland security.

I’d challenge these students and their advisers to question that narrative. I don’t mean they should reject it. But it is a vital lesson for journalists to learn to question not just government and power but also accepted wisdom. Is privacy an absolute? Has it always been? How do we balance privacy against the responsibilities of citizenship? What are the limits of secrecy — from individuals, institutions, and governments — when it affects security of the community? What are the threats to our civil liberties, including speech and well as privacy?

These students and their institutions have the opportunity to stand back from that fray and ask new and hard questions that are not being asked in the day-to-day press. I hope they take advantage of the opportunity. Could be a helluva seminar.

  • David

    What do you think about the MSM keeping it a secret that the Iraqi “woman” who was raped and killed was really just a girl. Is it better for them to keep the girls age a secret in order to protect the troops?

    http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002803062

    Ever since the case of the raping and killing of an Iraqi and the alleged murder of three of her family members by U.S. troops went public, the age of the rape victim had been in dispute, ranging from about 15 to 25. Two days ago, Reuters and others news agencies produced proof that she was 14, based on a passport and identity card. Most news organizations then started calling her a girl — but some persist in referring to her as a “woman.”

    The girl was apparently born August 19, 1991. Yet a widely published AP story today by Robert H. Reid repeatedly referred to the girl, whose last name was al-Janabi, as a “young Iraqi woman” and later again as a “woman.”

  • David

    Here’s an article on why people hate Lieberman that might be good for you to read before you spout off about the evil left after he is thrown out of the party this coming august.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/11/AR2006071101204.html

    Lieberman’s Real Problem

    By Harold Meyerson
    Wednesday, July 12, 2006; Page A15

    I am about to become a traitor to my class. Among my estimable colleagues in the Washington commentariat, the idea that Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is facing a serious challenge from a fellow Democrat over Lieberman’s support for the Iraq war seems to evoke incredulity and exasperation.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Larry Johnson (former CIA) claims there were no secrets. Here is one version of his thesis:
    What Secret?

  • Jon T

    WHat nonsense. Instead of coming up with a clear answer, you say — we need a seminar. I bet if that had happened on another topic you weren’t so wishy washy about, you’d be the first to criticize them.

  • Ethan

    “This isn’t as simple as saying, “when in doubt, publish.” This needs study and debate. ”

    Yes, and that’s their contribution to the debate at this time.

  • http://www.wingercomics.com/ Carson Fire

    That’s not a contribution to the debate! They refuse to speak directly to their critics; they do the elitist version of that Dell guy sending an angry email to Jeff Jarvis, “how dare you criticize us? We know better than you. Shut up.”

    Media is playing a dangerous game with its non-elitist audience. Polls generally find that the public doesn’t trust the press as it is. But the press has found a way to go beyond simply not being trusted to being widely despised.

  • Thedude

    “They refuse to speak directly to their critics” Who are you talking about the Bush administration? Lets see. WMD? Torture? Troop levels? Spying? fake media? Presidential powers? Who again rufused to speak directly to their critics?

  • Bret

    I think your “defending The New York Times” link is broken. It points here:
    http://buzzmachine.com/index.php/2006/07/11/some-friendly-advice-from-dell/

    Feel free to delete this comment!

  • http://www.wingercomics.com/ Carson Fire

    Shifting the debate. There are plenty of opportunities for us to address an administration, one excellent way being constitutional elections. The administration must face the press every day, who are mostly deeply critical of them.

    No one elects Bill Keller; he is selected by a liberal publisher and he only gives interviews to other liberal journalists. That would be the equivalent of Bush being elected by Karl Rove, and only interviewed by Tony Snow, and only ultimately accountable to Condi Rice.

    This need to print secrets, and let the chips fall where they may, is nothing but an assertion on the part of the unaccountable with vast power. If the voter disagrees with Bush, he can vote the bum out. The average American sees Keller sabotage the US, cripple our war effort, and put soldiers at risk with breezy justifications, and can only throw up his hands in frustration.

    What if a powerful corporation — one you didn’t like — was using its power to accumulate government secrets in order to defeat government initiatives that might negatively impact their business? A free press is us, our own voices on the internet, our voices in the street. Defending the NYT isn’t defending an independent voice, it is defending a powerful and unaccountable elite corporation from responsibility for their out-of-control actions.

    You might as well be defending Enron and Ken Lay. The only difference is that you support the goal of this particular wrongdoing.

  • http://ipex2002.blogspot.com Will Pollard

    There is currently a possibility that copyright law will be used in the UK to stop online distribution of documents relating to a book by Craig Murray. I have written about this in a n article for OhmyNews.

    http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?article_class=3&no=304410&rel_no=1

    I realise some people would take the view that the book raises issues that would be best ignored in the interests of security.

    However this use of copyright laws, if effective in court, would raise questions which would usually concern most journalists.

  • Jon T


    What if a powerful corporation — one you didn’t like — was using its power to accumulate government secrets in order to defeat government initiatives that might negatively impact their business?

    Are you talking about Cheney’s Energy Committee ?


    ou might as well be defending Enron and Ken Lay

    Nonsense. Enron and Ken Lay broke the law in many ways. The New York Times has broken no law.


    No one elects Bill Keller; he is selected by a liberal publisher and he only gives interviews to other liberal journalists. That would be the equivalent of Bush being elected by Karl Rove, and only interviewed by Tony Snow, and only ultimately accountable to Condi Rice.

    Well, the first 2 are not that far off :-). In any case, if you don’t like Keller, you have a 1000 alternatives to his paper. There is no alternative to Bush’s paper.

  • http://www.wingercomics.com/ Carson Fire

    “Well, the first 2 are not that far off . In any case, if you don’t like Keller, you have a 1000 alternatives to his paper. There is no alternative to Bush’s paper.”

    No, you are absolutely wrong on that. You cancel your subscription to the New York Times if you are merely unhappy with their product. But New York Times behaving irresponsibly and against the interest of the nation as a whole cannot be reigned in by people cancelling their subscriptions.

    I insist on my Enron comparison. It would be like saying that you’re going to weed out corruption at the very top by switching to another energy company.

    And there is absolutely an alternative to “Bush’s paper”. It’s called running a successful candidate against him, and the Democratic party failed to do so in 2004. We continue to have no redress against the New York Times, because it is supported by a large, urban, liberal readership that is just fine with sabotaging the efforts of the rest of the nation.

  • Thedude

    “was using its power to accumulate government secrets in order to defeat government initiatives that might negatively impact their business?” or Fox news and a Corporation using its power to distribute the talking points of the administration in power. You have Fox news blantently making up issues that benifit this adminstration and your bitching about NYT publishing an already known program. This entire debate is BS. Have you not learned the MO of this administration and its propaganda minister Rove yet? They don’t like freedom of the press so they create a problem out of nothing to force a solution that they wanted all along. Rove has been doing this problem reaction solution thing for years and people keep falling for it. Jarvis and other are being fooled. Please wake up we can’t afford a docile media with this administrations tendencies.

  • Pingback: The Glittering Eye » Blog Archive » Why publish?

  • http://www.wingercomics.com/ Carson Fire

    “Fox news and a Corporation using its power to distribute the talking points of the administration in power. You have Fox news blantently making up issues that benifit this adminstration”

    Lying doesn’t help your case. If FoxNews’ sole purpose was to “distribute talking points”, there would be no liberal staff members or air time. I’ve seen FoxNews enough to know that the sort of issues that they are “making up” are afternoon car chases; they are mostly a glitzy news channel which has as a novelty the *inclusion* of conservative point of view that other outlets have purposefully excluded in the past. Issues that you disagree with are more likely the issues they debate on their debate programs, which are generally the same issues that the other media outlets talk about — you just despise the fact that the opinions of other people can be heard on highly rated cable shows.

    The obsession and furor over the access of people (that you disagree with) to media says a lot more about your hypocrisy towards freedom of the press vs a docile media. You are uncomfortable with people with differing points of view being allowed to have a voice; you would prefer a media that walks in lockstep, *your* lockstep.

    And this is why Democrats feel more “polarized” than ever. The genie is out of the bottle; the sheep are out of the barn, etc. Liberal dominance over information channels is *over*. You’re never again going to have a pure state of three dominant liberally-inclined information sources on television; the fact that big city, urban newspapers have been mostly the plaything of rich liberals is now fairly irrelevant. Liberal moguls like Ted Turner couldn’t even control cable, for long.

    Apparently, the only way left for leftist media to continue making themselves more important and more relevant than everybody else is to act wildly, irresponsibly; not to perform better at reporting the news, but creating more controversy by being the news, even if it means committing what to most regular people are clearly treasonous acts.

  • Jon T


    I insist on my Enron comparison.

    YOu can insist on it all you like. What Enron did was illegal, so your comparison was bogus.

  • Jon T


    If FoxNews’ sole purpose was to “distribute talking points”, there would be no liberal staff members or air time.

    So instead of none, we have maybe 10% liberal staff members at that. Certainly Fox’s reaction to the Hoekstra/Santorum — look we found WMDs story would seem to indicate that.


    pparently, the only way left for leftist media to continue making themselves more important and more relevant than everybody else is to act wildly, irresponsibly; not to perform better at reporting the news, but creating more controversy by being the news, even if it means committing what to most regular people are clearly treasonous acts.

    What you dont’ seem to like is that a newspaper dares to publish an article critical of your Great Leader. To your, treason is challenging the great leader. The First Amendment, the Constituon is nothing more than a piece of paper. In faact, the NYTimes (and a number of other papers0 actually did a better job of reporting the news. Its people like you who want to make them the news. And its downright risible to hear the right, who says that Bill Keller should be sent to a gas chamber, talk about tolerance for other points of view.

    Of course, when the NYTimes publishes the Wen Ho Lee story (that turns out to be False), its not an indication of anti-Clinton bias. When the NYTimes publishes 2 dozen Judith Miller stories (that turn out to be false) abotu WMDs in Iraq, its not an indication of pro-administration bias. In the minds of wingnuts, total obedience and obesiance is called for.

  • http://www.wingercomics.com/ Carson Fire

    Jon T, the NYT story about SWIFT was not critical of Bush, as far as I know, and, in fact, acknowledged that there was nothing illegal or improper about the program. They simply revealed details about the program that terrorists shouldn’t know.

    You then spin this into a whimsical tale about people irrationally defending Bush, when that doesn’t even enter into it. What the NYT did in this case would have been wrong even if the president was Kerry, Clinton, or Carter.

    The difference is that if Kerry, Clinton, or Carter called this for what it is, your little head wouldn’t be so muddled on the issue. You would recognize it for what it is, instead of seeing things through the filter of Bush Derangement Syndrome.

  • Jon T


    The difference is that if Kerry, Clinton, or Carter called this for what it is, your little head wouldn’t be so muddled on the issue. You would recognize it for what it is, instead of seeing things through the filter of Bush Derangement Syndrome.

    Actually, Ars on Fire, my head is perfectly in the right place. Yours seems to be lodged in your rear end. You and your ilk are the ones calling treason, suggesting that Bill Keller should be sent to the gas chamber. In short, its not even so much the case that you’re just criticizing the Time’s decision or calling it wrong, you’re suggesting that its clearly treasonous.

    And I thought the Times was perfectly within its right to publish the inaccurate Wen Ho Lee story.

    BEsides, I remember how wingnuts reacted during the Clinton era. They started up militias, promised rebellions against the Fedex, and produced such illustrious members as Timotyh McVeigh. POssible Taking up arms against the rightfully elected government was defended thoroughly. So spare me your hyprocisy. Go back to Flush Slimbaugh and the Faux News channel, and continue to wallow in their fake news.

  • http://www.wingercomics.com/ Carson Fire

    “BEsides, I remember how wingnuts reacted during the Clinton era. They started up militias, promised rebellions against the Fedex, and produced such illustrious members as Timotyh McVeigh. POssible Taking up arms against the rightfully elected government was defended thoroughly. So spare me your hyprocisy. Go back to Flush Slimbaugh and the Faux News channel, and continue to wallow in their fake news.”

    You keep proving the point; this is nothing but a partisan issue for you. You can do nothing but rant and rage against the right wing boogeyman, but can’t address the reality of what the New York Times did, apart from the absurd repetition of “Wen Ho Lee”, which is like defending a murderer because you think he once kicked a dog.

  • Rich Gordon, Medill School of Journalism

    Jeff, just want to let you know that the “helluva seminar” you describe was already part of Medill’s News21 project. One of the premises of News21 was that before students start to report on a subject, they should study it in depth. From January to March, I co-directed a seminar on “Privacy, Civil Liberties and Homeland Security,” along with Andrew Wachtel, dean of Northwestern’s graduate school and an expert on the history, politics and literature of Eastern Europe. The topics we covered included everything you mention:

    Is privacy an absolute? Has it always been? How do we balance privacy against the responsibilities of citizenship? What are the limits of secrecy — from individuals, institutions, and governments — when it affects security of the community? What are the threats to our civil liberties, including speech and well as privacy?

    The reading list was really strong – all the great writings of the past 30 years on privacy, security, civil liberties and secrecy.

    So Medill’s News21 fellows are well-equipped for this project. I know they embarked on the reporting with no preconceptions.

    Or maybe, two preconceptions:
    (1) that American society will be better off if it spends some times thinking about — and discussing — the tradeoffs involved in privacy, civil liberties and homeland security;
    (2) that this discussion needs to yield a consensus on what limits there should be — and surely there must be *some* — on the government’s ability to gather, store, analyze and act upon data about individuals.

    Rich Gordon

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Rich,
    Thanks. I think that is a firm foundation.
    But I would add a third goal/preconception:
    (3) that this discussion needs to yield suggested standards or guidelines on the press’ role in secrecy and privacy: when and why should the press reveal and not reveal secrets?