A Times Blockbuster  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2006

A Times Blockbuster   

The story on NSA eavesdropping was powerful and important, but the paper should have more fully explained why it held the piece for so long. Posted Dec. 19, 2005.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Thanks. They needed that.

The New York Times' exclusive about President Bush authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without seeking warrants was quite a bombshell. And a welcome one for the beleaguered Times.

The paper has been reeling for months from the fallout stemming from the Judith Miller brouhaha. Just two years after the painful Jayson Blair scandal, the World's Greatest Newspaper once again found itself under the microscope. And the view wasn't always pretty.

At the same time, it has watched as its competitors have broken major stories. The Washington Post had a terrific piece on the existence of CIA-run prisons for suspected terrorists in foreign countries. And the Los Angeles Times broke the news that the United States has been buying favorable coverage in the Iraqi press.

The NSA piece was huge and important. It had instant impact, dooming the Bush Administration's efforts to have the Senate extend the Patriot Act on Friday. In this blog-saturated era, rife with predictions of the MSM's imminent demise, it was a forceful reminder of the power of journalism, old-fashioned journalism.

It also was a classic case of why those dreaded anonymous sources are sometimes necessary. You're never going to get on-the-record accounts in instances when much of the information is classified, as was the case both with the Times' NSA piece and the Post's story on the CIA prisons overseas.

The Times has been doing a commendable job when it uses information from confidential sources of explaining why it has done so. And it did in this case: "Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight."

But as always seems to be the case with the Times these days, the scoop was accompanied by a major dose of controversy. It was triggered by this paragraph:

"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. 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."

The long delay, not surprisingly, set off thunder on the left. The liberal blog the Daily Kos proclaimed that the Times had "betrayed the American people" and called on the Times to apologize to "all of America for being complicit in this moral crime."

It's not unheard of for government officials to ask that information be withheld on national security grounds. Sometimes the requests are valid. Sometimes they are debatable, occasions when reasonable people can disagree. At the same time, there's an unhealthy history of "national security" being invoked to keep embarrassing information hidden from the public.

And unless you have first-hand knowledge, it's hard to assess the merits of the request.

Back in 1985, when I was at the Washington Post, I was involved in the coverage of a flurry of spy scandals. One piece focused on Ivy Bells, an operation to intercept underwater Soviet communications that had been compromised by NSA analyst Ronald Pelton.

Several times we were about to go with the story when then-NSA chief William Odom stopped by to express his national security concerns to then-Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. Several times the piece was delayed. Since Bradlee was one of the most aggressive editors I've ever known, it's hard to imagine that Odom didn't have some valid points.

And while at times it seemed like a year, the piece did get in the paper after a matter of weeks.

A yearlong delay is tough to understand. It's good that the Times mentioned it. But it would have done itself and its readers a favor if it had gone further. Referring to it without fully explaining it invites problems.

This seems like a classic case for a column by the editor or an editor's note of some kind explaining as thoroughly as possible why the piece was held and what changed to allow it to be published. This would be tricky, since it involves classified information, but the obstacles don't seem insurmountable.

Leveling with readers can make them more comfortable with your decisions. And uncertainty opens you up to attacks from those with political axes to grind.

Transparency is not only the right way to go, it's also the smart way to go.

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