The Press and “Matters of Public Interest”

Give the New York Times at least a little credit for editorial discretion.

Last week, in a note to its readers accompanying the release of the first installment of nearly 90,000 classified documents, it claimed that it had ” taken care not to publish information that would harm national security interests.”

Well thank goodness we have the editorial board of the New York Times around to make critical judgements for us on issues of  national security.

By now everyone knows that the paper, alongside seven other international newspapers, was the recipent of documents from the website known as WikiLeaks, which specializes in obtaining classified information that the government does not want made public.  The documents, in this case,  offer information about the U.S. war in Afghanistan which purportedly illuminate the U.S. government’s  military planning and decision making processes over a five year period between 2005-09.

The New York Times justified the release of the documents by asserting that  ” There are times when the information is of significant public interest,  and this is one of those times.”

By what authority does the paper gauge “matters of public interest? ”

And who, we should all wonder, made the editorial board of the New York Times the arbiter of what is or what is not in the ambit of this country’s national security interests?

Those are questions the News York Times and other national newspapers rarely answer with any precision, if at all.  Rather, their conduct over the past decade has demonstrated a wilful contempt of  the U.S.government’s stated view of national security interests and a repeated failure to accede to the demands of successive administrations to keep national security materials well under wraps.

On December 16, 2005, Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, experienced  investigative reporters at the Timesblew open the NSA wiretapping scheme, under the same justification of public interest.   They followed that performance with  a report on June 23, 2006  focusing on the disclosure of the government’s SWIFT program –  an international effort, led by the United States, designed to monitor the financial transactions of terrorist organizations. 

But things are not always as they seem at the New York Times.

As to the first incident, commentator Gabriel Schoenfeld in Necessary Secrets: National Security, The Media and the Rule of Law ably demonstrates that it was neither “matters of public interest”  nor concerns for individual privacy that stood as the prime motivations for the Times to publish Lichtblau and Blau’s original story on the NSA.  It was, rather, a determination not to be scooped by its own reporters who were both writing books at the time on the Bush Administration’s anti-terror campaign.  The eventual publication of those books  – Lichtblau’s Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice  and Risen’s State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration  soon revealed not a balanced examination of the efficacy of the Bush Administration’s counter terrorism campaign but a vitriolic contempt for the Bush Administration itself and a ruthless demonization – and throughly prejudiced – attack on its counter-terrorism measures. It cast into significant doubt the reasons for the exposure of the scheme.

As for the SWIFT program revelations, no legitimate reason was ever offered by the New York Times for the necessity of disclosing the program. In fact in a letter to readers the paper’s editor, Bill Keller, admitted that ” no serious abuses of privacy had been identified.” Rather, he stated, the article’s publication was a means of protecting the public against only potential violations by the Bush Administration:

  ” We remain convinced,”  he wrote, ” that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest “

In other words, the editor of the foremost and arguably the most influential newspaper in the country, believes that it is incumbent on journalists such as himself to determine ” matters of public interest ” that could have a  potential  bearing on the security of U.S.citizens.

But who elected or appointed such men to make these kind of decisions for us?   Who gave sanction to these self appointed tribunes to wrest from our elected leaders and our military personnel ( men and women, after all, in whom we repose our trust and confidence by fiat, to protect us) the authority to pass judgement on vital issues of national security? 

The answer, of course,  is no one.   The press simply deigns to itself such a right, even if the U.S. Constitution (through the First Amendment)  remains silent on the issue and abundant legislation ( including the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Comint Act of 1950 – both of which have sections which expressly focus on the published disclosure of classified  information)  and more than 200 years of court decisions have repeatedly stymied the release of documents which the government regards as having a bearing on public safety.

Such editorial presumption was illustrated by Keller in his June 23, 2006 letter:

” 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.”

He is certainly not alone in considering the enshrined principle of freedom of the press as a blank check given to an unelected body of self appointed potentates to pass judgement on what is and what is not safe for us to know.

On June 27, 2006, Dan Baquet, the then editor of the Los Angeles Times, in justifying his own paper’s publication of the SWIFT program’s details, offered this rather revealing window on press arrogance:

” We (also) have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That’s the role of the press in our democracy. The founders of the nation actually gave us that role, and instructed us to follow it, no matter the cost.”

No matter the cost?   I wonder if  Baquet had actually read the debates  on the  drafting of the First Amendment?  He might be surprised to learn that the  recorded discussion in the House of Representatives in 1789 on Madison’s first draft of the Amendment  is rather unhelpful in gauging the ‘ Founders’ intentions’ and that there is no recorded debate at all on the issue in the Senate.   I wonder if he has read the vast body of jurisprudence since that time which makes it clear that there are absolute limits on the press’ supposed right to disclose classified materials to the public – particularly during war time.

What he might also discover is that there is certainly no fundamental right to reveal everything there is to know about the workings of counter-espionage and counter-terrorism in this country – even where it concerns protecting against the potential  for the abuse of privacy rights.

If the press wants to claim that its right to virtually legislate on national security issues is absolute, then surely the public has a similar right to demand from it the exact standards and policies by which it seeks to frame these decisions.  It is simply not enough for editors such as Keller and Baquet to claim arbitrary authority.   If the United States Congress and our judiciary have spent 220 years debating First Amendment rights, then why isn’t it appropriate for our self appointed fourth tier of government to be doing exactly the same thing? 

Maybe it is time for the press to examine, within itself and together with its reading public, the exact framework for the publication of classified documents whose disclosure could mean life or death for thousands of U.S. citizens.

Only then will we have a much more exact understanding of what the press actually means when it claims that it is taking action in ” matters of public interest ” and will be held accountable when it abuses its own standards.  And perhaps then American citizens, in whose service the press claims to be acting, will find a way to let our newspapermen know whether it considers those standards to be either admirably sustainable or else sadly deficient.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: