When in Doubt, Publish

By On Secrets
Sunday, July 9, 2006; B02

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be concerned when news organizations publish information that the president and others in authority have strongly urged not be published.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.

We know from history that the government often claims to be concerned about national security when its concern is that disclosure will prove politically or personally embarrassing. The documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers in 1971 told how Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had misled Americans about our role in the Vietnam War. Hence the classification of their contents.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a new climate of caution was a sensible response to a sophisticated terrorist foe. But Bush's reaction -- declaring a "war on terror" and claiming the Constitution grants almost limitless powers to the president in a time of war -- is excessive. His administration has been aggressively restricting access to information on the grounds of national security. For example, earlier this year historians complained that intelligence agencies were removing previously declassified documents from archives. Some of these papers dated as far back as the Korean War; many had been cited multiple times in books.

In general, the administration has sought to conduct much of what it calls the war on terror in secret, and it has been able to do so with little oversight from Congress, which would normally be a key check on power. When the press has played such an oversight role, it has often been harshly criticized.

For instance, a few months ago Bush denounced the Times for revealing the National Security Agency's program of monitoring international telephone calls by Americans without first obtaining warrants, as the law requires. In that case, Bush rebuked the paper for revealing a classified secret. For most observers, however, the most important secret that was revealed was that the president had ignored the statutory process that Congress had established.

Despite the rhetoric of their fiercest critics, most journalists take secrets seriously. Indeed, in a number of cases since 9/11, many news organizations, including the Times, have forgone publication of information at the request of the Bush administration. The Times held the article on domestic eavesdropping for a year, publishing it only after the paper thought that the issues raised were of great importance.

We believe that the extraordinary power of the presidency at this moment mandates more scrutiny rather than less. Yet Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has said he would consider prosecuting journalists for publishing classified information. Such an action would threaten to tilt the balance between disclosure and secrecy in a direction that would weaken watchdog reporting at a time when it is badly needed.

We subscribe to the vision of Carl C. Magee, a crusading journalist whose Albuquerque newspaper infuriated another president in the 1920s with revelations in the Teapot Dome scandal. Forced to close his paper after being driven to bankruptcy, Magee emerged two months later with another newspaper.

Emblazoned on the front page was a new motto, borrowed from Dante: Give Light and the People Will Find Their Own Way.


Geoffrey Cowan, dean

Annenberg School for Communication

University of Southern California

Alex S. Jones, director

Shorenstein Center

Harvard University

John Lavine, dean

Medill School of Journalism

Northwestern University

Nicholas Lemann, dean

Graduate School of Journalism

Columbia University

Orville Schell, dean

Graduate School of Journalism

University of California at Berkeley

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