When in Doubt, Publish

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By On Secrets
Sunday, July 9, 2006

It is the business -- and the responsibility -- of the press to reveal secrets.

Journalists are constantly trying to report things that public officials and others believe should be secret, and constantly exercising restraint over what they publish.

Most Americans want their government to be held accountable, which is the raison d'?tre of watchdog journalism. At the same time, they do not want the press to disclose government secrets that are vital to national security.

The journalist's dilemma, then, lies in choosing between the risk that would result from disclosure and the parallel risk of keeping the public in the dark -- a quandary that has become all the more pointed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As deans charged with imparting the values of journalism to the next generation of reporters and editors, we favor disclosure when there are not strong reasons against it.

That issue is front and center again because of the June 23 articles in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal describing the government's efforts to track terrorist financing. The New York Times has attracted most of the outrage because it took the lead in investigating the system.

It is appropriate for Americans to be concerned when news organizations publish information that the president and others in authority have strongly urged not be published. No sane citizen would wish the media to provide terrorists with information that would be likely to endanger Americans.

President Bush has denounced the Times in exceptionally harsh language, and on June 29 the House formally condemned the paper. Some critics of the Times have termed its actions "treasonous" and called for criminal charges under the Espionage Act. One conservative commentator told the San Francisco Chronicle that she would happily send Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, to the gas chamber.

Keller has characterized the decision to publish the information as a "close call," making this an especially important example to examine. Despite its security concerns, the public has shown steady support for the media's watchdog role. Earlier this year, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 56 percent of respondents said it was very important for the media to report stories they believe are in the nation's interest. A third of respondents ranked government censorship on the grounds of national security as more important. The public wants the press to keep a sharp lookout, but wants the job performed responsibly. We share this sentiment.

In the case of the stories about financial data, the government's main concern seemed to be that the hitherto cooperative banks might stop cooperating if the Times disclosed the existence of their financial tracking system. So far, that apparently has not happened.

For many Americans, however, the possibility of damage to terrorist surveillance should have been sufficient justification for the Times to remain silent. Why, they ask, should the press take such a chance?

There are situations in which that chance should not be taken. For instance, there was no justification for columnist Robert D. Novak to have unmasked Valerie Plame as a covert CIA officer.

We believe that in the case of a close call, the press should publish when editors are convinced that more damage will be done to our democratic society by keeping information away from the American people than by leveling with them.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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