Tell all

At tonight’s mixer for PaidContent (more on that in a minute), Arthur Sulzberger was interviewed by Rafat Ali and was asked about the impact of online news on stories such as the current terrorism intelligence program on banking. Reference was made to the Pentagon Papers. Sulzberger explained that back then, because the publication went on over time, the government could see prior restraint against The Times. But today, the entire document could be put up in a moment. So they could not come after a news organization now seeing prior restraint. But then he added as a punchline that got a laugh, “treason? — yes.”

I imagined that all across America at just that moment, bloggers and editorial writers for the New York Post stuck their noses up over their copies of Ann Coulter’s latest as their eyes twinkled and their fingers twitched.

I have been mulling over the public letter from Bill Keller justifying The Times’ outing of the banking intelligence program. I think there’s an underlying logic to the letter that’s worth poking. Keller says it is not The Times’ role to judge the program — yet, I’d argue, the decision to out it is, inevitably, a judgment. To do so is to say that the program is illegal or wrong or ineffective; there has to be some reason to expose it, knowing it is secret. Keller writes:

The Administration case for holding the story had two parts, roughly speaking: first that the program is good — that it is legal, that there are safeguards against abuse of privacy, and that it has been valuable in deterring and prosecuting terrorists. And, second, that exposing this program would put its usefulness at risk.

It’s not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.

So that is saying that we deserve to know everything, absolutely everything. As a worshiper of speech protected by the First Amendment and of transparency as the new virtue of journalism and of reporting as a pillar of a free society, you’d think I’d be applauding that sentiment. It sounds good. But I don’t think it washes in real life. Newspapers know plenty they choose not to reveal: from troop locations to undercover cops’ identities to corporate moves that affect shareholders (you can be reporters get the same leaks blogs do). If they revealed all they knew at all times on all subjects, that would be a defensible model — ‘If we know it, you know it.’ But they keep secrets so they get secrets and also to act responsibly. So this notion that not telling us about the banking program preempts the roles of lawmakers, judges, and voters is, well, somewhat specious.

And though The Times says it is not to judge the program’s legality or effectiveness, Keller goes on to say that they weighed the government’s contention that exposing it would endanger it and they rejected that. So they did, indeed, make a most crucial judgment about the program. The Times further rejects the government’s contention that this would tip off terrorists to change their ways. So how does The Times know it has not? Inquiring minds want to know.

Keller also says, “The press and the government generally start out from opposite corners in such cases. The government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest.” That may be fair in many cases, but not in all. This implies that all acts of government are spin. Sometimes, they actually are in the public interest. And acting against that is not always in the public interest. Yes, the role of the press is essentially adversarial. But the government and the press are not the only players in this drama and need not always be adversarial. There are other guys out there murdering us who also play a role. They are the enemy of us all.

What’s more amazing about Keller’s letter in some ways is its glibness. He throws off a one-liner not unlike his proprietor’s, above:

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government’s anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that’s the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.)

Now that’s patently ridiculous. Glenn Reynolds says it indicates that “Keller isn’t very bright, or else he thinks you’re not.” Yes, The Times isn’t really published until bloggers link to it.

Finally, Keller argues that the press has a special place in society:

It’s an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.

Jay Rosen wrote in 2004:

The press doesn’t own journalism, entirely. And Big Media doesn’t entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn’t. These things were always true.

Yes, we need not only a press but also an open society of empowered citizens to balance the power of those we elect. But we also do elect those people to make judgments on our behalf. And we don’t — and should not — elect the members of the press who question them.

So when you get right down to it, this is a disagreement about what’s right. Keller is cloaking his decision in the First Amendment and the power of the press. George Bush wrapped his obvious disagreement around doing harm to the nation and our war on terror and others did go so far as to label it treason.

My bottom line, not that it matters: The government has long and and long been urged to follow the cut off the money to terrorists to both starve and uncover them. I wholly endorse that. I assumed that they were doing precisely what The Times is shocked that they were doing: following transactions. I don’t think it’s known that the program is either illegal or ineffective. But I also think it is possible enough that revealing its existence can do the program and the nation harm, so I would not have revealed it.