Today, the editors of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times jointly published a statement on their publication on and exposure of the SWIFT monitoring program.
The statement makes three basic points, I think.First, as editors they think really hard about publishing classified information, and they give the government the opportunity to talk them out of it.
Then, we listen. No article on a classified program gets published until the responsible officials have been given a fair opportunity to comment. And if they want to argue that publication represents a danger to national security, we put things on hold and give them a respectful hearing. Often, we agree to participate in off-the-record conversations with officials so they can make their case without fear of spilling more secrets onto our front pages.
Finally, we weigh the merits of publishing against the risks of publishing. There is no magic formula, no neat metric for either the public's interest or the dangers of publishing sensitive information. We make our best judgment.
Make no mistake, journalists have a large and personal stake in the country's security. We live and work in cities that have been tragically marked as terrorist targets. Reporters and photographers from both of our papers braved the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center to convey the horror to the world. We have correspondents today alongside troops on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others risk their lives in a quest to understand the terrorist threat; Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was murdered on such a mission. We, and the people who work for us, are not neutral in the struggle against terrorism.Third, they point out that the government always wants to keep secrets, and that they are the bulwark against the government abusing those powers.
But the virulent hatred espoused by terrorists, judging by their literature, is directed not just against our people and our buildings. It is also aimed at our values, at our freedoms and at our faith in the self-government of an informed electorate. If freedom of the press makes some Americans uneasy, it is anathema to the ideologists of terror.
Thirty-five years ago Friday, in the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the government from suppressing the secret Vietnam War history called the Pentagon Papers, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people."These are all honorable arguments, made by honorable men. But there is, in my mind, a gaping hole in them, and the absence signified by that hole is truly significant.
As that sliver of judicial history reminds us, the conflict between the government's passion for secrecy and the press' drive to reveal is not of recent origin. This did not begin with the Bush administration, although the polarization of the electorate and the daunting challenge of terrorism have made the tension between press and government as clamorous as at any time since Justice Black wrote.
Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf, and at what price.
And yes, I do think that the free press can and must serve as a check on governmental power.
And yes, they're not neutral in the struggle against terrorism, but if they saw themselves first and foremost as citizens - as Ernie Pyle did in his war reporting, as Joe Galloway did in his - would the question even come up?Let me restate one of their central points in terms I wish they had used. (Changes have been bolded).
Make no mistake, journalists have a large and personal stake in our country's security. We are citizens of this Republic, and live and work in cities that have been tragically marked as terrorist targets. Reporters and photographers from both of our papers braved the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center to convey the horror to the world. We have correspondents today alongside troops on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others risk their lives in a quest to understand the terrorist threat; Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was murdered on such a mission. We, and the people who work for us, are not neutral in the struggle against terrorism, we are citizens and supporters of the United States.It's a minor shift in tone, but a telling one. And the sad joke is that I can't imagine Keller or Boquet making that shift in tone, which is why I'm so upset at this, and I imagine so many others are as well.
Look, let me put it another way.
I have a younger brother. As brothers do, we have said and done harsh things to each other; out of good intentions and bad, out of the full range of what brothers and families do to each other. Some of the things said and done would be unforgivable, if done by someone else.
Why the double standard?
Because I know my brother loves me, and he knows I love him. Our loyalty to each other has not ever been in question.Similarly, if journalists did not see themselves as having no higher loyalty than to the story - remember, here's Mike Wallace:
"No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"...their protests might not ring as hollow.
There's a much larger issue here in terms of the assumption that the kind of unchecked legal freedom in our country can work without the soft restraints of social and political obligation.