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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

NYTimesWatch: The Public's Selective Right To Know 

The half-vast editorial staff awoke this morning in a deeply existential funk, the words of NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller thrashing about our pretty little noggin like a minority party in search of a raison d'etre:

"The question we start with as journalists is not "why publish?" but "why would we withhold information of significance?" We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so."

This rationale: it is tres juste, n'est pas? Framed in this manner, what reasonable person could question the Times' decision to helpfully show the terrorists how to defeat Marine body armor. There simply was no compelling reason not to!

Mr. Moss highlighted and discussed the actual areas of potential vulnerability in the armor, which we specifically asked him not to do, and he did it anyway," Catto says. "You having been a Marine can understand why we would ask him not to do that. But he did."

The story did not simply specify that there were unprotected areas of the body perceptively protected by existing body armor, but it highlighted those areas in both content and a color graphic, which illustrated in red exactly where bullets and shrapnel had previously struck and killed Marines.

But as Monsieur Keller has so often reassured us, the Times does nothing without reason. In the judgment of the Times' reporter, who no doubt is possessed of a vast and unerring expertise in military affairs, terrorists never aim their weapons. They just fire randomly. Additionally, the Times was swayed by the cri de coeur of the military's own medical examiner:

The military's medical examiner, Dr. Craig T. Mallak, told a military panel in 2003 that the information ‘screams to be published.’ But it would take nearly two years."

Naturellement, in the Times' expert judgment the public did not need to know that Mallak's comment referenced a completely unrelated issue: the use of Ephedra by US troops. No doubt in retrospect, the Times regrets misleading the public. But as Monsieur Keller is quick to tell us, those who have not served on the front lines should not presume to sit in judgment. After all, the Founding Fathers intended us to have a vigorous and free press. Furthermore, deciding what we do (or do not) have a right to know is not an easy task. Such life and death decisions are made only after careful deliberation.

So it was with great anticipation that the HVES pulled up the home page of the NY Times at zero dark thirty this morning. Having learned that the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (a group closely allied with Fatah) has claimed to have WMD they will not hesitate to use on Israel, we could hardly wait to read more about this two day old story from America's leading newspaper. After all, since their 'default position' was to inform the public (absent some compelling reason not to) surely the Times would err on the side of full disclosure?

Continue reading...

12 Comments:

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Tue Jun 27, 09:19:00 AM:

futurama:

"The Department of Truth today released more information on the so-called Atlanta Nine, a group of rogue journalists who revealed state secrets to a shadowy readership.

The Atlanta Nine were originally apprehended following the printing of an article entitled, "Government position wrongheaded". The article is reported to have stated that President George P. Bush has been covering up crimes committed by his administration. This statement, along with others, provided succor to our enemies and threatens the right of Americans to live.

It has been learned that the Atlanta Nine also published similar sentiments on the "internets". If found guilty by the military tribunal, the nine may be put to death."

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I know y'all get mad when I get hyperbolic and snarky, so I'll add a postscript -

p.s. Aside from Right Blogistan, the only people I've heard talk about this are bloviating television pundits. The Republican party has been saying for months that bad news out of Iraq isn't representative of the situation there. "Blame the Press!" has become the theme for many right-handed bloggers and windbags. The "liberal media", which had no problem savaging the last President and had no problem cheerleading the invasion of Iraq, now has a truth problem, according to what I've read here.

The problem is that telling the truth, while virtuous, may reveal facts that show our enemies something they don't already know. Then journalists and editors must weigh the public's right to know against the danger the information poses.

It's a difficult line to find, and it's clear that the Times is willing to walk right up to it. However, the press is not your enemy, people. Write the Times ombudsman, cancel your subscriptions (I rarely read the Times anyway because it's all cocktail weenie party bias), but lay off the traitor/treason hyperbole. They're journalists trying to do their jobs.

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Just got back from your blog, where I read the rest. FYI, the Jerusalem Post and Captains Quarters have their own cockeyed bias issues, and it's entirely possible that folks are waiting on some verification before going to press with such an incendiary story as the one you mention re: bio/chem weapons.

You are a sweet, sweet person, Cass, working your fingers to the bone to show America how John Murtha and the New York Times are trying to kill, Kill, KILL AMERICAN SOLDIERS! However, the facts are these - the New York Times is a journalistc ivory tower that makes its decisions in a strange vacuum that pisses off liberals, conservatives, hawks, and doves alike. They were irresponsible before and they'll be irresponsible again, but they're not traitorous treasoners - though you wouldn't know that from watching cable news or from reading this blog.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Tue Jun 27, 10:26:00 AM:

Screwy, you need to read more carefully.

Bill Keller alleges that the default position of the NY Times is to report all news stories unless there's a compelling reason not to.

So rather than starting from the presumption that classified information should stay secret unless there's a compelling reason to disclose it, the Times adopts the opposite principle: that it has the right to unilaterally declassify our national secrets.

The problem is that:

a) this is against the law
b) no one gave them this authority. By Keller's rationale, any single US citizen who decides it's in the "public interest" to unilaterally declassify secrets can do so. Do you really agree with this?
c) the NYT has no mandate and no oversight whatsoever. By what "right" do they deliberately countermand the decisions of our elected and appointed public servants?
d) you have never answered the question I pose all the time: The Times keeps justifying their decisions because they maintain we can't trust the White House and only oversight can provide us the security we need. Why then should we trust the NY Times? Where is their oversight? They say the President "may" be breaking the law (and in this case they freely admit he isn't). We KNOW the Times has broken the law several times.

The President can be turned out of office. The NY Times cannot because it will hide behind the 1st Amendment, which does not provide an unqualified right of free speech. Do we get a vote? Apparently not.

e) if the only "public interest" is to ensure oversight, why did the Times bybass the House Select Committee on Intelligence.  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Tue Jun 27, 11:05:00 AM:

Screwy - actually, publishing classified national secrets which jeopardize the country's civilians and military personnel is a violation of law which is certainly also within the realm of treason, by definition. Now of course, the act of treason remains an allegation until due process is applied in a court of law. I think it would be very useful for our nation, our voters and our press to see the application of due process in this case and see how it comes out.

I think we need it.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Tue Jun 27, 11:42:00 AM:

It's also notable that I haven't once accused anyone of treason, so I'm not really sure why that got brought up.

Nothin' like knocking down those straw men :)  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Tue Jun 27, 04:03:00 PM:

Stupid time restraints!

Thanks for responding. I direct you to Glenn Greenwald, who shares some of my sentiments regarding the free press.

CLICK THIS LINK IF YOU WANT TO READ AN OPPOSING OPINION

otherwise...

CLICK THIS LINK TO SEE A FURRY KITTEN  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Tue Jun 27, 04:18:00 PM:

I promise I will. I can't read Glenn, however, until I've pre-medicated. You don't want my empty little conservative head to explode, do you? :)  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Tue Jun 27, 04:25:00 PM:

And Screwy:

I'll leave you with one final thought before I read Glenn's piece.

My Mom, who is a very smart lady, taught me that if I'm not sure where the right lies, I should ask myself: what would happen if everyone did this?

Bill Keller demands the "right" to out classified programs because he's Bill Keller. But who died and make him King?

And if he doesn't have any special privileges, then what would happen if every citizen claimed the right to break the law when it suited them? What if Mary Anti-war claims the right to send the location of my husband's battalion to the enemy because she believes the public's interest is not served by war?

What made her opinion more valuable than those which put Bush in office for four years? Does any American who doesn't agree with a policy have the right to sabotage it?

You are arguing that the end justifies the means and the law and the public plebescite can be overturned by any individual who finds them inconvenient. I'm sorry, but I reject that notion utterly.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Tue Jun 27, 05:50:00 PM:

Damn Bill of Rights!

The free press is a part of our national fabric, even when we don't like it.

You use the "if everybody broke the law, then where would we be?", but you won't apply the same standard to the Bush administration.

Further, as Glenn Greenwald lays out, this information is neither new nor surprising...

Al Qaeda: "You mean they are watching our bank accounts?!?" I never could have imagined it! Praise Allah the NYTimes told us!"

Average Iraqi: "Damn that Sy Hersh! If he hadn't spoken of Abu Ghraib, then Iraq would be peaceful and prosperous! If the press would just stop reporting the bad news, then things would be rainbows and cookies!"

The executive branch simply can not have a pass to be unaccountable. Newspapers are accountable to their readers and, as you write, to the law. If the law's been broken, prosecute. I think the prosecution will lead nowhere. If found guilty, then heads ought to roll. I don't want the free press to endanger us, and I don't want our own government to endanger us.

Al Qaeda is plenty to contend with. I don't need to be watching my back wondering when someone will abuse the power they've seized. The free press, or the Fourth Estate, has been invaluable in checking government power.

I'm still getting my thoughts together on the whole matter, but I'm a fan of the free press and entirely suspicious of the Bush administration.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Tue Jun 27, 06:23:00 PM:

Screwy, you haven't shown that the Bush administraton HAS broken the law.

Hint to the clueless: You don't get to punish criminals until you PROVE they broke the law. You have to present this troublesome thing called evidence.

The whole allegation the Bush broke the law rests on the assumption that the Executive Branch does not have the powers it says it does. Legal experts are STILL arguing about this. No one has conclusively proven lawbreaking occurred even if Bush did all the things they accuse him of.

But you want to substitute your opinion for facts. Guess what? That doesn't fly in a court of law.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Tue Jun 27, 06:26:00 PM:

Screwy, I happen to think Keller and Risen *ought* to be prosecuted, FWIW. If, as you say, they are not guilty that will come out in court. Just as I don't advocate letting the accused Haditha Marines off without a trial. This is why we have a justice system.

And if the NY Times gets off b/c the law is too ambiguously framed, perhaps that will spark Congress into changing the law.

Or not. But to bleat the way Greenwald is doing about malicious persecution and physical threats is sheer lunacy. The man needs to try some black cohosh - I do believe he's going through menopause.

I've seen women who are more calm and rational. Responsive post coming if I ever stop laughing long enough.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Jun 27, 07:34:00 PM:

"The free press is a part of our national fabric, even when we don't like it."

They should be prosecuted, and I don't agree that it would go nowhere.

"Did the Secretary of the Treasury ask you not to publish this story because it was classified and important to the national security?"

"Uh, yes."

"Did you publish it anyway?"

"Uh, yes."

"Prosecution rests."

Free speech has limits. This is not wishful thinking or the product of some fascist philosophy, it's a fact. Look it up. One of those limits is seeking out and publishing secret defense-related information. The Times crossed it, and should be punished according to the law. So should those security-cleared officials who leaked to them. Because it was illegal.

'Al Qaeda knew that anyway.' Oh really? So they knew just exactly how the US was tracking finances and using that knowledge against them? Then how was the program successful (and successful enough that a whole string of people from the SecTreas to Congress asked them to not publish) if this was such common knowledge in the terrorist underworld? That's incomplete logic. Once more, sarcasm does not equate a valid argument.  

By Blogger Gambit, at Wed Jun 28, 09:27:00 AM:

When something gets leaked that hurts the left, democrats say, "investigation investigation! Make Karl Rove serve jaul time, WOOOOO!", however when it hurts Bush, it's just freedom of the press and it's illegal for Bush to call an investigation.

Hmm....  

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