I want to take a few minutes and expand on my thinking about why the NY Times and LA Times were so wrong to publish the story about the SWIFT monitoring program.
I don’t think that the newspapers are treasonous, or doing this solely in an effort to thwart President Bush (i.e. I don’t think that a Democratic president would be getting a free ride right now). That doesn’t mean that the impacts of what they are doing doesn’t damage the country, put lives at risk, or negatively impact President Bush’s effectiveness.
I think, in simple terms, that they have forgotten that they are citizens, and that they have an obligation to the polity that goes beyond writing the good story. I don’t think they are alone; I think that many people and institutions in the country today have forgotten they are citizens, whether they are poor residents of New Orleans defrauding FEMA or corporate chieftains who are maximizing their bonuses at the expense of a healthy economy.
But that’s another blog post.
I wrote about journalism and citizenship back in February, and one of the examples I cited was James Fallows’ story about a conference in 1987 held at Montclair State College as a part of a PBS series called “Ethics in America”.This conference was about the ethical issues involved in being in the military, and one of the discussions involved media superstars Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings. Here’s Fallows:
Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening’s panel, better known than William Westmoreland himself. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace of 6o Minutes and CBS. Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading, the North Kosanese had agreed to let Jennings and his news crew into their country, to film behind the lines and even travel with military units. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, Jennings replied. Any reporter would-and in real wars reporters from his network often had. But while Jennings and his crew are traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by American and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly cross the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one. What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to “Roll tape!” as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans? Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t,” he finally said. “I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked.
Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. “But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That’s purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction.” Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he said, obviously referring to himself. “They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover.” “I am astonished, really,” at Jennings’s answer, Wallace said a moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: “You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!” Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. “I chickened out.” Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached. As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, everyone else in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror. Retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford’s national security advisor and would soon serve in the same job for George Bush, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. “What’s it worth?” he asked Wallace bitterly. “It’s worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon.” Ogletree turned to Wallace. What about that? Shouldn’t the reporter have said something? Wallace gave his most disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms wide in a “Don’t ask me!” gesture, and said, “I don’t know.” He was mugging to the crowd in such a way that he got a big laugh-the first such moment of the discussion. Wallace paused to enjoy the crowd’s reaction. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given. “I wish I had made another decision,” Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the last five minutes over again. “I would like to have made his decision”-that is, Wallace’s decision to keep on filming. A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform, jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell looked at the TV stars and said, “I feel utter . . . contempt. ” Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces–and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. The instant that happened he said, they wouldn’t be “just journalists” any more. Then they would drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield. “We’ll do it!” Connell said. “And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get … a couple of journalists.” The last few words dripped with disgust. Not even Ogletree knew what to say. There was dead silence for several seconds. Then a square-jawed man with neat gray hair and aviator glasses spoke up. It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than when he became Speaker of the House in I995. One thing was clear from this exercise, he said: “The military has done a vastly better ‘job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have.” That was about the mildest way to put it. Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace are just two individuals, but their reactions spoke volumes about the values of their craft. Jennings was made to feel embarrassed about his natural, decent human impulse. Wallace was completely unembarrassed about feeling no connection to the soldiers in his country’s army considering their deaths before his eyes as “simply a story.” In other important occupations people sometimes need to do the horrible. Frederick Downs [an earlier speaker who had discussed the ethics of torture and battlefield interrogation], after all, was willing to torture a man and hear him scream. But had thought through all the consequences and alternatives, and he knew he would live with the horror for the rest of his days. When Mike Wallace said he would do something horrible, he didn’t bother to argue a rationale. He did not try to explain the reasons a reporter might feel obliged to remain silent as the attack began–for instance, that in combat reporters must be beyond country, or that they have a duty to bear impartial witness to deaths on either side, or that Jennings had implicitly made a promise not to betray the North Kosanese when he agreed to accompany them on the hypothetical patrol. The soldiers might or might not have found such arguments convincing, but Wallace didn’t even make them. He relied on charm and star power to win acceptance from the crowd. Mike Wallace on patrol with the North Kosanese, cameras rolling while his countrymen are gunned down, recognizing no “higher duty” to interfere in any way and offering no rationale beyond “I’m with the press”–this is a nice symbol for what Americans hate about their media establishment in our age.
That’s a long quote, so let me pull out two key quotes from it that, to me sum up the nub of the issue.
“I am astonished, really,” at Jennings’s answer, Wallace said a moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: “You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!“
Col. George M. Connell:
“I feel utter . . . contempt. ” Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces–and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. The instant that happened he said, they wouldn’t be “just journalists” any more. Then they would drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield. “We’ll do it!” Connell said. “And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get … a couple of journalists.” The last few words dripped with disgust.
The problem is, simply, that journalists are part of a larger society. Journalism as Mike Wallace practices it could not be practiced in ‘North Kosistan’ (funny name, now that I think about it) or in Al-Zarquawi’s fantasy of Iraq.
Earlier journalists, as I show in my Feb. post, got that. I do not believe that the editors of the NY Times and LA Times do.
Dean Baquet (who got a copy of my email canceling my subscription) has a letter justifying their decision in today’s paper (no, I don’t get the paper, it was in the roundup email that I still get from the Times, and yes, as Kevin Drum pointed out at lunch Sunday, I know I’m ‘cheating’ by reading the online edition)
Here’re some highlights from Baquet, with some comments from me interspersed:
MANY READERS have been sharply critical of our decision to publish an article Friday on the U.S. Treasury Department’s program to secretly monitor worldwide money transfers in an effort to track terrorist financing.
They have sent me sincere and powerful expressions of their disappointment in our newspaper, and they deserve an equally thoughtful and honest response.
The decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly. We considered very seriously the government’s assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion against the fact that there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties.
I do think there’s a legitimate set of debates to have about the limits of the surveillance state (see what England is doing these days). But by the standard Baquet holds up here, any and all surveillance programs are up for disclosure, no matter how legal or effective – simply because the controversy exists. I guess I’d like to know where Baquet draws the line.
We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department’s program did not pose that threat. Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries. In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism.
And now we know. If it’s so operational that someone might die, then it’s off bounds. Anything else is fair game – secrets to be kept, if the government can do so.
And let’s also go to the point that patterico makes: the program had had significant successes, but the Times reporters weren’t good enough to have unearthed them.
In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.
Well, the public is interested in all kinds of things, including autopsy pictures. I’m slightly worried that Baquet feel that he and his lawyers are the arbiter of which of those interests is ‘legitimate’.
Some readers have seen our decision to publish this story as an attack on the Bush administration and an attempt to undermine the war on terror.
We are not out to get the president. This newspaper has done much hard-hitting reporting on terrorism, from around the world, often at substantial risk to our reporters. We have exposed terrorist cells and led the way in exposing the work of terrorists. We devoted a reporter to covering Al Qaeda’s role in world terrorism in the months before 9/11. I know, because I made the assignment.
But 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.
I don’t actually disagree with this. But the perspective that you cover the government from – the way you decide what and when to report – does matter.
And the problem is that I keep seeing Mike Wallace sitting and rolling tape with the North Kosanese, and he’s saying exactly the same things.
I think that what Bill Keller and Dean Baquet went too far in this case. I don’t know if they are feeling pressure yet (after all, my subscription might have paid his coffee bill for a day or two) or genuinely wondering what the reaction is all about.
Patterico is all over this, and points out some of the slippery thinking and changing stories coming from the Times.