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.

  • This statement makes the judgment that divulging the program was harmful. In this case, why is the NYTimes divulging it more harmful than the several times the administration itself divulged it?

  • That’s easy, Ruth: it’s “harmful” when the information in question embarasses the Administration, and not harmful when it helps bolster up those anemic poll numbers. The scary thing is that even with 30-something percent approval ratings the Bush spin machine is still powerful enough to get Jarvis and other well-intentioned pundits to question themselves for doing their jobs as journalists.

  • “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.”

    The above is written as is those points are non-debatable. As if they are already decided. Clearly, by the simple fact this was written about, debated, and still undecided upon, its not that clear cut and may never be.

    The only sentence that is “true” is the easy decision part. I don’t thing everyone would agree about relative unimportance to most Americans and Europeans”. It seems like a very important issue that is fundamental to what this country stands for. The firs admendment and “all that stuff.”

    “absence of apparent wrongdoing on the part of the government” Come again? When was that decided? They might not have broken the letter of the law (I think that is still under discussion) but they might have broken the morality and the trust between the people and the government.

    “potential for it to be helpful to terrorists” Even that is under debate. Has it been helpful to terrorists? Has the program been helpful in catching terrorists? There are so many questions and so few answers who knows. Nevermind that if you collect information about all the people you are bound to find something. Its not even targeted, its just random data mining hoping a pattern emerges.

    “the Times might have been wise to put this one on the spike” Nice use of the word “might”. I like how the writer avoid directly answering what he things the Times should have done…while using the entire article to indicate what they should have done. All the while not really proving his case.

    A point not brought up, never brought up, despite McCarthyism, Hoover, and Nixon, is the potential of abuse. Regardless of party affiliation, you have to assume at some point, someone you don’t like or trust will become in charge of using and potentially abusing the information and power programs such as these bring. There was already a leak that apparently the data was used to try and find potential sources for reporters.

    The theory is that since don’t know if its right or not, lets just keep it to ourselves means that the only ones that then make the decision are those already doing it! We have seen historically time and time and time and time again what happens when that is allowed.

  • Sigh, really really need to get in the habit of proofreading.

  • I am amused by the tenacity of the argument that this information was already out there. If it was out there, why did the NYT reporter post a story 6 months earlier bemoaning the lack of progress tracking terrorist money then write this story in the breathless manner of a big scoop and why did the NYT put it above the fold on page 1? Either it was out there and the NYT is completely incompetent for treating it like a scoop or it was not out there. What is the answer? So, Ruth and Jersey: Are you wrong or is your favorite propoganda organ astoundingly incompetent?

  • Rainey,

    Why the “or” in your last sentence? They’re wrong, and the NYT is astoundingly incompetent.

  • Jon T

    Lets see if I see this now:

    Leaking of a bust of Lebanese plotting terror: Good
    Leaking of a CIA agents name: Good

    All other leaks: Treasonous.

    Yup, got it.

  • I think I’m at the point now where I just don’t believe that the Times could ever act in good faith.

    I read the NY Times regularly, moreso than the WSJ. But I read them knowing that the bias is there, and I roll with it. I don’t let it get to me.

    However, because I make the presumption in order to tolerate them, when it comes to issues like this, I’m absolutely with the right-wing, and cannot accept for a moment they acted with any sense of responsibility. Your dissection of Keller’s letter shows this, I think: he treats all critics and complaints as just “whatever.” And if he were right, and there was a genuine abuse of power here, we wouldn’t be complaining.

    As it stands, this just looks like something to make the case that all the Bush administration wants to do is pry into everyone’s life and bank account. What Weisberg has to do is show that this is not part of a consistent pattern of animus towards the administration. I guarantee he can’t do that, and so his defense of the particular decision making in this case falls apart.

    At the same time, I know full well I’m biased, and that if things hadn’t gotten so bad in terms of media literally splitting apart along left/right divides, I wouldn’t even be thinking of this charge, let alone making it.

  • Sorry, didn’t take the time to make the point, but of course Mark Shields on the Newshour pointed out that he had received a press release from the admin. announcing its program of tracking terrorist finances around the first of the year. He was only one of many recipients. And altho I haven’t taken the time to track it down for you here, there is footage in the rose garden of the president’s announcing his successes including tracking terrorist financing. Yep, Jersey, it’s okay if it’s the admin. publicity campaign.

  • Thedude

    As nixon said “if the President does it, that makes it legal” Its a shame Blogs like this are going to continue with the docile direction of the US media. Is it Fear or blind loyality to a brand that is causing the obvious roll over?