There’s an interesting editorial in The Times this morning where The Times appears to take a tough stance against China, which has refused to approve visas for Times reporters since the paper reported on China’s moneyed elites. This is the fifth paragraph of the editorial: “The Times has no intention of altering its coverage to meet the demands of any government — be it that of China, the United States or any other nation. Nor would any credible news organization. The Times has a long history of taking on the American government, from the publication of the Pentagon Papers to investigations of secret government eavesdropping.”
What I found interesting about the last line was the part about the eavesdropping. You may recall that in December 2005 the Times broke the story about the NSA’s illegal domestic spying. It was written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. What the editorial in today’s paper doesn’t tell you is that twice the Times killed the story, which Risen had originally finished at the end of Bush’s first term, before the election he narrowly won against Kerry.
What the Times doesn’t say in the editorial is that then-NSA Director Michael Hayden and Bush themselves intervened to kill the story, and Bill Keller, the executive editor at the time, went along. Twice. Bush and his people claimed the story would damage the country’s efforts to fight the war on terror—the usual bullshit we now know, thanks to Snowden, to have been a cover for illegal spying on an unprecedented scale. And what the Times also doesn’t tell you in that editorial is that the paper agreed to run the story only when Risen informed his editors that he was writing a book (“State of War”) and that he was including the domestic spying story in it. His editors were “furious” at first (Risen’s word), but they didn’t want to be scooped. So they finally, more than a year later, published the article.
In one way, it was one of the Times’s shining moments. In another, it showed the Times to be a patsy, and its handling of the story in my view (and Risen’s) was shameful, especially in light of what it had been doing until then: in the run-up to the Iraq war, Risen was the only reporter at the Times whose stories questioned the whole WMD fantasy and the intelligence community’s cooked up theories on Iraq. His stories were either killed or buried in inside pages, while stories by reporters hyping the WMD danger Iraq posed were front page news—again, following the Bush administration’s lead. Bill Keller has since offered a half-baked mea culpa for all that, albeit tortuously and with too much focus on absolving himself. And of course it’s too late.
I’ve had numerous conversations about the push and pull between press and government with local officials. A running theme, one I heard again in a conversation this morning, is that transparency sometimes trumps accuracy or the good of the community. That of course was the Times’s argument when it killed the Risen stories initially, as it was the Bush administration’s. I’m not saying there is any relationship whatsoever between the nature of the domestic spying story and just about any local stories. But from a reporting perspective—the responsibility of reporting versus government’s desire to control a story, whether it’s our federal government’s, China’s or local government’s—it’s not much different at all.
Government’s arguments almost always come down to presuming that government knows better than readers or reporters what’s best to release, when and how. I don’t believe that’s ever the case, in the sense that it is never government’s role to make those judgments, whether it’s a question of routine local issues or matters of national security of the highest degree. Bush in fact in the last meeting with Keller on the domestic spying story told Keller that he’d have blood on his hands if he went ahead with publication. It goes to show to what ridiculous extent government will attempt to manipulate the press, stopping at nothing.
What happens at the highest levels of government actually happens routinely, probably daily, in state and local government, with stories not remotely related to anything like national security. But the impulse to suppress is the same. People allegedly in charge presume to control and manipulate stories, their timing, their reporting, their slant. It’s not even subtle anymore. I see this here almost weekly with one thing or another, and hardly any of the information being controlled is controversial (except maybe in the minds of the controllers). Supervisor of Elections Kimberle Weeks acts like she’s a law unto herself, manipulating public records in a way that makes you wonder what else she manipulates in her office. The Sheriff’s Office, which has been developing an unhealthy siege mentality in proportion with Sheriff Jim Manfre’s challenges, thinks its internal protocols trump public record laws (witness its manipulations of information about a murder suspect’s stint at the local hospital earlier this month.) Flagler Beach did what it could to keep a settlement with two wrongly fired firefighters from getting out. Even the county administration in the last 24 hours unnecessarily dragged its feet on releasing a committee report on the fate of the old courthouse (although that had more to do with an excusable editing matter than anything to do with keeping the report from circulating).
The sad thing is that the press more often than not collaborate with government even at the highest levels, as the Times-Risen episode shows. That’s what government is used to, especially locally. Every reporter has heard that horror of horrors: “Be a team player.” And too many reporters play along. But the second one does, he’s no longer a reporter but a mouthpiece. We have enough of those in government to deafen us with white noise posing as news.
Here’s the kicker of the Risen story: as soon as he published his book, Bush launched an investigation to find Risen’s leakers. Risen refused to cooperate with the Justice Department and was subpoenaed. When Obama was elected Risen thought he was in the clear. Obama renewed the subpoena instead. Obama, that great liberal, has been the most anti-press president in the nation’s history, charging more people under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. A court of appeals ruled Risen must testify. He’s refusing to. He now faces the possibility of going to jail.
I have no doubt that the majority of the public either doesn’t care or sides with the government, at least on this score.