More secrets about secrets

Times public editor Byran Calame writes his first almost-tough column taking The Times to task, properly, for not revealing why they did not reveal what they know about warrantless NSA spying — and why they did reveal it when they did. He called the paper’s explanation “woefully inadequate” and said he had “unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.” He accused the editor and publisher of The times of “stonewalling,” a word that carries all too much irony in those halls.

For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making.\…

I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a fuller explanation in the future….

But the explanation of the timing and editing of the front-page article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau caused major concern for scores of Times readers. The terse one-paragraph explanation noted that the White House had asked for the article to be killed. “After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting,” it said. “Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.”

If Times editors hoped the brief mention of the one-year delay and the omitted sensitive information would assure readers that great caution had been exercised in publishing the article, I think they miscalculated. The mention of a one-year delay, almost in passing, cried out for a fuller explanation. And the gaps left by the explanation hardly matched the paper’s recent bold commitments to readers to explain how news decisions are made.

At the very least, The Times should have told readers in the article why it could not address specific issues….

Calame said the nearest he got to an explanation was one sentence from Keller:

“There is really no way to have a full discussion of the back story without talking about when and how we knew what we knew, and we can’t do that.”

Calame speculates that this is about sourcing:

Taken at face value, Mr. Keller seems to be contending that the sourcing for the eavesdropping article is so intertwined with the decisions about when and what to publish that a full explanation could risk revealing the sources. I have no trouble accepting the importance of confidential sourcing concerns here. The reporters’ nearly one dozen confidential sources enabled them to produce a powerful article that I think served the public interest.

With confidential sourcing under attack and the reporters digging in the backyards of both intelligence and politics, The Times needs to guard the sources for the eavesdropping article with extra special care.

Well, but with The Times also under attack for its sourcing, it should take extra special care with its own transparency and credibility.

That’s all the more the case because of the timing of the story in relation to the election:

The most obvious and troublesome omission in the explanation was the failure to address whether The Times knew about the eavesdropping operation before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election. That point was hard to ignore when the explanation in the article referred rather vaguely to having “delayed publication for a year.” To me, this language means the article was fully confirmed and ready to publish a year ago – after perhaps weeks of reporting on the initial tip – and then was delayed….

For me, however, the most obvious question is still this: If no one at The Times was aware of the eavesdropping prior to the election, why wouldn’t the paper have been eager to make that clear to readers in the original explanation and avoid that politically charged issue? The paper’s silence leaves me with uncomfortable doubts.

What Calame does not address is the timing of the eventual release of the story just as Congress debated the extension of the Patriot Act.

He also trips over himself praising the story itself and does not raise questions about it. I raised some questions here.

See also Jay Rosen on the news The Times isn’t reporting.

: Glenn Reynolds adds:

The Times’ behavior on this story, and the Plame story, has undermined the unwritten “National Security Constitution” regarding leaks and classified information. Since the Pentagon Papers, at least, the rule has been that papers could publish classified information in a whistleblowing mode, but that they would be sensitive to national security concerns. In return, the federal government would tread lightly in investigating where the leaks came from. But the politicization of the coverage, and the outright partisanship of the Times, has put paid to that arrangement. It’s not clear to me that the country is better served by the new arrangement, but unwritten constitutions require a lot of self-discipline on the part of the various players, and that sort of discipline is no longer to be found in America’s leadership circles.

If the Times decided that its job was to tell its readers everything it knew, when it knew it, then it would have a good argument for publishing this sort of thing. But since the Times has made clear that it’s happy to keep its readers in the dark when doing so serves its institutional interests, it doesn’t have that defense for publishing stuff that’s bad for national security.

: Not unrelated: Bill Maher in a yearending post at Huffingtonpost:

Not to feed the idea that Arianna and I engage in logrolling, but it should be noted that this blog thing of hers was a very big event in 2005. And how perfect that the big story that she was way, way, way out in front of everyone on — and for months — the Judy Miller fiasco — was a story about how the media, even the media we most respect, is off its pedestal and there is a vital need for alternative news narrative.

: See a fresh report from Jay Rosen here.