[Guest post by DRJ]
How does a major newspaper decide whether to report wartime news whose release may jeopardize American interests or lives? New York Times‘ Editor Bill Keller says it depends on many factors, apparently including whether the newspaper has a friendly or acrimonious relationship with the President:
KELLER: No, we get asked to withhold information, not often but from time to time. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer, you know we have reporters embedded in military operations – obviously they don’t file information that would put troops at risk. We’ve had other stories that were much more controversial where we decided that we would publish. This one was not, honestly, a very hard call. Obviously we were eager to break the story, it represented a lot of resourceful reporting by Mark and Dexter, but there was no obvious public interest reason to rush the story into print and you know we are responsible people; we didn’t want to compromise what sounded like a possible intelligence coup.
HEADLEE: And certainly, the story retains just as much power more than a week later as it would have had you broken it right at the time, is that kind of your thought process?
KELLER: Yeah, I think that’s kind of the thought process. What actually happened, was yesterday our stringers in Pakistan and Afghanistan started calling our bureaus there and saying, we’re hearing reports that Mullah Baladar is in Pakistani custody, we took that to the White House and they said, yeah we understand it’s not holdable anymore.
HEADLEE: Right, so you published it. Now you visited the White House in 2006 while President Bush was in office and you were getting ready to publish a story about domestic wire tapping and very famously you were told if you published that story you’d have blood on your hands. Is that the kind of dire warning you got from the Obama White House?
KELLER: No, first of all this didn’t even get to my level, they dealt with Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, I mean obviously if they felt they needed to call me, I’m always willing to take a call, but it didn’t even rise to that level. Back in 2006 the conversations were professional and civil, but in the end when we didn’t agree to hold the story as they wanted us to, it was a kind of firestorm of criticism from the White House aimed at the Times. So far anyway we haven’t had that acrimony with this administration, nor as far as I know have other news organisations.”
It sounds like the New York Times‘ editors didn’t [like and/or] trust Bush and that contributed to why they refused his requests, but they [like and/or] trust Obama so they are more willing to accommodate his requests. I don’t know if that’s consistent with journalistic standards but it’s understandable. We are more likely to believe people we trust.
It’s also useful because it explains why subscriptions are dropping at newspapers like the New York Times but not at sources like the Wall Street Journal. It’s about trust.