Advancing a Free Society

A new low for the New York Times

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not satisfied with publishing literally hundreds of stories on the classified government documents obtained by the New York Times from Julian Assange, the paper’s executive editor has now delivered himself of a book on the story of journalists at work with other journalists and their sources. The book is, naturally, being extensively excerpted in the Times.

Even in our narcissistic age, Keller’s article is self-congratulatory, extolling at length his newspaper’s “enormous moral and ethical obligation to use the material responsibly.” He applauds his newspaper’s journalistic integrity for posting the documents with redactions and not directly linking their newspaper to the Wikileaks sites because of concerns that “low-level informants” would be revealed. Of course, that the same information was easily available from the Wikileaks sites and the New York Times extensively publicizing the documents and their source does not trouble his conscience. His overall conclusion is that “we have no doubts about where our sympathies lie in this clash of values. And yet we cannot let those sympathies transform us into propagandists, even for a system we respect,” as though declining to publish the documents constitutes becoming a propagandist.

I take particular affront at Keller contrasting a “sober and professional” President Obama with President Bush. Keller’s justification for news outlets like the Times publishing the documents –a distinction he is at pains to make between his newspaper and Assange/Wikileaks – is that the news organizations undertake additional fact checking and reporting, adding “context and analysis.” Yet Keller neglects to add the context that President Bush was objecting to the publication of information about an ongoing intelligence operation directly related to America’s ability to protect itself from terrorist attacks, whereas President Obama was reacting to the third Wikileaks release of documents, and such an enormous number there was never any practical possibility that newspapers wouldn’t publish some of what they’d gotten. President Bush’s threat was that the Times would bear some culpability if a future terrorist attack occurred; he was right that news organizations must also take responsibility for the consequences of their professional choices.

The New York Times should be ashamed of itself. Again. I was, however, delighted to see Keller recount that even New York Times readers were mostly opposed to the newspaper’s publishing the documents; he cites the tenor of comments as “Many readers were indignant and alarmed: Who needs this? How dare you? What gives you the right?”

Perhaps the fittingest outcome is Assange being exposed by the very media outlets that made him a celebrity. But in attempting to shore up the integrity of the Times, Keller inadvertently provides assessments of Assange that may be useful in an espionage trial, if the Holder Justice Department ever sees fit to consider the release of a quarter million classified documents by a hostile foreigner a reasonable use of the Espionage Act. It describes Wikileaks’ editing of Iraq video footage “a work of anti-war propaganda” (goes to motive for Assange), says low-level Afghan informants named in documents were targeted by the Taliban (harmful effect of the release). Keller says the Times treated Assange “as a source,” and says he would hesitate to describe what Wikileaks does as journalism. Since Keller has volunteered the information in public, he’s fair game to testify.

(photo credit: DG Jones)