Journalists Should Expose Secrets, Not Keep Them

Random Lengths News | December 22, 2005
After smoldering for years, the twin issues of government secrecy and civil liberties have burst into flames. The big spark came when The New York Times reported midway through this month that domestic spying by the National Security Agency has been going on for years -- without court approval -- on orders of President Bush.

This is a big political scandal. But it also raises very troublingconcerns about the state of American news media.

Journalists should be in the business of providing information to the public. But some -- particularly at the top rungs of the profession -- seem to have lost their way. They’ve become players in the power games of the nation’s capital. And too often they seem to imitate the officeholders who think it's their job to decide what the public should know.

On Dec. 16, when the Times front page broke the story of the NSA's domestic spying, the newspaper's editors had good reason to feel proud. Or so it seemed. But there was a troubling backstory: The Times had kept the scoop under wraps for a long time.

A few days after the Times finally printed the story, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter wrote: "I learned this week that on Dec. 6, Bush summoned Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office in a futile attempt to talk them out of running the story. The Times will not comment on the meeting, but one can only imagine the president's desperation."

The White House pulled out all the stops in its efforts to persuade the Times not to report the story. The good news is that those efforts ultimately failed. The bad news is that they were successful for more than a year.

Times editors and management have declined to shed much light on their rationale for holding the story. When it finally ran, the newspaper was cryptic on the subject. "The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny," the article's ninth paragraph reported. “After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted."

From all indications, the Times had the basic story in hand before the election in November 2004 when Bush defeated challenger John Kerry. In other words, if those running The New York Times had behaved like journalists instead of political players -- if they had exposed this momentous secret instead of keeping it -- there are good reasons to believe the outcome of last year’s presidential election might have been different.

The press -- whether you call it the Fourth Estate, the guardians of the people’s right to know, or simply the public’s watchdogs -- should not function as a fourth branch of government.

The Constitution is explicit in the First Amendment, which prohibits "abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." While we usually think of censorship as something imposed by government, there's more an one way to abridge freedom of the press. In this case, you can't blame President Bush for the long delay in publication of a blockbuster story by The New York Times.

Chiseled into the stone facades of some courthouses is the credo "Justice delayed is justice denied." The same might be said of journalism, which derives much of its power from timeliness. When egregiously delayed, journalism is denied -- or at least severely diminished.

It's not necessary to censor the news, Napoleon observed; it's sufficient to delay the news until it no longer matters. During the last days of 2005, the news about the NSA's unwarranted spying inside the USA still matters -- but not nearly as much as it would have if The New York Times had reported what it knew before Americans voted for president more than 13 months ago. Instead of being a feather in its cap, the recent expose of NSA spying is a mark of shame for a media outlet that claims to be America’s newspaper of record.


Norman Solomon's latest book is “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” For information, go to:

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