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.

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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.