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U.S.: Leading Daily Criticized For Delaying Domestic Spying Story

  • Andrew Tully --> "Times"Executive Editor Bill Keller celebrating the paper's Pulitzer Prize in April 2004 (AFP) "The New York Times" recently published an article saying the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had been directing the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on people in the United States without first getting judicial warrants, as is required by law. Bush acknowledged the story was true shortly after its publication but defended the program as vital to protecting America from terrorism. The story caused a scandal in Washington, where the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a member of Bush's own Republican Party -- promised to hold hearings on the practice. But another "Times" revelation related to the domestic spying story is causing a separate stir within political and media circles.

Washington, 23 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is hard to think of an American news organization that has challenged the country's central government as often and for as long as "The New York Times" has.

In perhaps the best-known example, in 1971, the newspaper published what have become known as the "Pentagon Papers," a cache of secret documents outlining the United States' effort to expand its role in the Vietnam War.

Aggressive Reporting?

So the paper's front-page report on 16 December that the Bush administration had authorized the NSA to conduct domestic eavesdropping seemed like yet another example of its aggressive reporting about the U.S. government.

But the newspaper is now being criticized by members of its own staff, as well as in political and media circles, for another revelation -- that is, that it withheld publication of that story for a year because at the request of the White House.

The decision has stirred debate in the United States about the relationship between the media and the government, and about the balance between the media's watchdog role and issues of national security.

Part Of The Culture

Observers say journalists anywhere in the world are part of the culture in which they operate. They cannot be expected to report information that hurt their fellow citizens -- for example, the location of troops during wartime.

Robert Spitzer is a professor of history and political science at the State University of New York at Cortland. He was asked if a newspaper like the "Times" sees itself as a "loyal citizen" of the United States.

"I'm not sure if they'd describe it that way, but I think that is part of the calculus," Spitzer said. "I absolutely do, even if they wouldn't admit it. They're very proud -- frankly, pretty arrogant -- about what they do. If you were to ask their editors or reporters [if they submit to the wishes of the government], they would say, 'Well, you know, as long as we have the story right, we publish.' But they don't always publish, and here's a good example of that."

Additional Reporting

The "Times" explained to its readers that the White House had argued that the story "could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."

The newspaper's executive editor, Bill Keller, acknowledged that it had removed information from the story that administration officials said could be "useful to terrorists" and said the paper had used the extra year to conduct "additional reporting."

Keller said the newspaper had learned more over the past year about concerns within the government about the legality of the program. He also said the newspaper believed it could now report the story without exposing "any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record."

The case reminds many of a decision by "The New York Times" in the early 1960s to withhold publication of an article about the impending -- and ill-fated -- invasion of Cuba by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles. The publication of the story was delayed at the request of the administration of President John F. Kennedy.

Changing Attitudes

Spitzer tells RFE/RL that for most of American history, the media has been almost a conduit for government information, not a check on its credibility. He says this was particularly true during wartime.

This attitude began to change in the late 1960s with the Vietnam War, when Washington was found to be exaggerating its military successes, and in the 1970s with Watergate, when the White House's credibility plunged.

Alison Schafer, a professor of journalism at American University in Washington, agrees that journalists became more openly adversarial to the government in the 1970s. But Schafer says this is often true only for relatively trivial issues.

Watchdog Or Lapdog?

Schafer says reporters who regularly cover the White House often try to force the president's spokesperson into making provocative statements. But when it comes to more substantial questions concerning diplomacy or war, she says, they can be docile.

"I think there's a real tendency for journalists to believe power," she said. "It's meant to be an adversarial relationship -- people go into journalism because they like that -- but I still think that the White House basically rolls over [dominates] the press. I basically think the press is more compliant than they would have you believe."

Indeed, "The New York Times" admitted last year that much of its reporting before the Iraq war on concerning former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs had been flawed.

Censor Themselves Too Often

Another journalism professor, Mark Feldstein at American University in Washington, says it's understandable for journalists to censor themselves to varying degrees rather than hurt their country. But Feldstein believes they tend to do so too often.

For now, though, Feldstein says it's too early to judge the decision by the "Times" in the domestic spying story.

"It's hard to know to what extent the 'Times' was justified in holding this story for a year," Feldstein said. "It's hard to know yet at this point to what extent the U.S. government's claims of national security being jeopardized by publication were justified or not. But I can tell you that historically claims made by governments of national security tend to be exaggerated, and that often what really is involved isn't national security but political security -- political embarrassment, really."

Another respected American newspaper, "The Washington Post" -- famous for its coverage of the Watergate scandal -- says its editors were in contact with senior administration officials before the recent publication of its story that reported the CIA has been running a network of secret prisons for terrorist suspects in Eastern Europe and Asia.

"Post" Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said administration officials did not seek to stop publication of the article, only to remove information that could jeopardize national security. He says the "Post" honored one request by not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries that had permitted the prisons.