When and why to tell secrets

Jacob Weisberg at Slate brings more thoughtful point-and-counterpoint to the discussion of the Times’ publishing of the Swift story than either editor there or than five journalism deans have.

Editors there and at the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal who also had pieces of the scoop should have waited to publish it, at least until they could be more certain that the snooping program was no longer useful.

Newspaper editors tend to be very uncomfortable making complex balancing judgments about the public interest vs. national security and usually end up falling back on the one bright line they do have, the “troop movements” test of whether anyone on our side might be killed as a result of their publishing information. But how should they make a decision in a case like this, where immediate consequences are not at issue? To run with a story with the potential to cause significant harm to the national interest, I’d argue, an editor needs one of two things: a solid claim of public interest, or a sound basis for thinking that a story won’t in fact damage national security. In the case of the SWIFT story, editors at the Times were notably weak in both suits.

The first question editors need to ask might be framed in this way: Is there a good case that the practice or actions we want to disclose are wrong–in terms of law, procedure, or morality?

Note that The Times’ Bill Keller said it wasn’t his job to judge the program. I have said that the act of publishing is necessarily a judgment. Weisberg concludes:

To publish or not to publish a story like this is seldom an easy decision. But given its relative unimportance to most Americans and Europeans, the absence of apparent wrongdoing on the part of the government, and the potential for it to be helpful to terrorists, the Times might have been wise to put this one on the spike.