Secrecy: Press Behavior

American Media Patriotism – Response to Greenwald

By Jack Goldsmith
Tuesday, March 1, 2011, 1:28 PM

Glenn Greenwald has an interesting response to my post on the patriotism of American media, but he exaggerates the significance of the media’s patriotic bent, and he misses some important points.

To begin with the obvious, American journalists regularly publish sensitive national security secrets of the American government in defiance of the government’s strong pleas not to publish.  No other nation in the world permits its local media to publish national security secrets about its government to the same degree.  No other nation lets its press alone decide which secrets are worth publishing.  We are a nation that confers constitutional protections on a free press and that has a vigorous tradition – especially since the Pentagon Papers – of journalists scrutinizing and reporting on secret government activity.

I don’t know why Greenwald seems so shocked to learn that American journalists weigh U.S. national security interests in the balance when deciding to publish.  It’s not like they make a secret of this fact.  Consider:

Leonard Downie Jr., former Executive Editor of the Washington Post:  “There are things that I know that were reported as long ago by reporters of several decades ago that we've never published in the newspaper and I've never uttered a word about because it's clear to me it would be harmful to national security. . . . [D]ecisions about whether something would be harmful to national security or not is just another one of those many decisions we make about what we're going to publish or not going to publish.”

New York Times Editor Bill Keller and former Editor of the L.A. Times (and now Washington Bureau Chief of the Times) Dean Baquet: “Make no mistake, journalists have a large and personal stake in the country's security.  We live and work in cities that have been tragically marked as terrorist targets.  . . . We have correspondents today alongside troops on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Others risk their lives in a quest to understand the terrorist threat; Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal was murdered on such a mission.  We, and the people who work for us, are not neutral in the struggle against terrorism.  . . . Our reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, take great care not to divulge operational intelligence in their news reports, knowing that in this wired age it could be seen and used by insurgents.”

Paul E. Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and now editor-in-chief of Propublica:  “The presumption is that we will publish what we have learned through our reporting, if we think a story is newsworthy.  But we will always listen to specific concerns raised by responsible government officials and weigh them seriously before reaching any final decision on publishing.”

Former USA Today Editor in Chief Ken Paulson: “News organizations serve an important watchdog role, and their mission is to scrutinize what the government does, particularly if government conduct raises constitutional questions.  That said, you have to take a close and careful look at what you're about to publish and assess whether there's anything in your story that could significantly undermine national security

These statements sum up well what I meant by the patriotism of the American media.  American journalists, unlike their global counterparts, weigh U.S. national security interests when deciding to inform the public about what its government is doing in secret.  Usually, almost always, they conclude that the public interest in knowing outweighs the harm to national security from publishing.  The strong presumption is to publish.  But there is another consideration, national security (and, relatedly, the lives of Americans and others who work in the national security field), that must be weighed and that sometimes trumps.

I do not purport to speak for journalists about why they weigh national security in the balance.  But I believe the answer begins with the fact that American editors make many judgments, every day, about what is newsworthy enough to include in the paper.  They don’t report every fact and every secret they know.  They keep material out of the paper for any number of reasons, including privacy interests, inadequate credible evidence, not enough space, the story is boring, various bad consequences, and more.  What each of the very different newspapers and other media outlets in this country decide to include in their very different publications is based, at bottom, on a judgment about what news best serves the public interest on balance – and for American newspapers, that means the American public interest, broadly conceived.  This is the step that that Greenwald thinks is corrupt.  He thinks, I suppose, that American newspapers should be completely detached from the society in which they and most of their readers live, and should instead take a neutral, society-free perspective on the publication decision.  I don’t know any newspaper anywhere in the world that does this or ever has.  Nor are Greenwald’s journalistic outlet, or this blog, free from attachments and commitments.  But in any event, American journalists get to decide for themselves what type of audiences they cultivate and what commitments they have.

On the whole, the main commitment of American journalists is that the publication of secret government activity is in the public interest.  But the commitment is not absolute.  There was a widespread consensus, for example, that it would be wrong to publish the raw wikileaks State Department cables and war reports in ways that endangered lives.  Publication of secrets can do real harm, and that possible harm must be weighed against the public benefits of publication.  No responsible journalist would publish everything he or she knows without regard to consequences.  In those rare cases when papers determine that the national security harm of publication outweighs the benefit of disclosure, they hold the story, or part of it.  But self-censorship is not government censorship.  The genius of the American system is that constitutionally protected and formally independent journalists, and not the government, make the decision about what should be published.  This can leads to errors, of course.  Newspapers sometimes make mistakes, both in deciding what to publish and in deciding what not to publish.  These mistakes, in both directions, are the cost we pay for the enormous benefit of an independent press trying to ferret out secrets and holding the government’s feet to the fire.  “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything; and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press,” said Madison.

Greenwald thinks the weighing of American national security interests by the American media is illegitimate.  He appears to believe that journalistic integrity requires the press to publish every government secret it knows, regardless of consequences, including the consequences for lives, for ongoing intelligence operations, for aiding the enemy, and the like.  I don’t know any journalist who believes that, and I also don’t know any journalist who claims to be “objective” in the sense that Greenwald claims the media should be.  But Greenwald does not just claim that American journalists are not objective.  He says, with characteristic exaggeration, that they are beholden to the government and are motivated above all else to further its national security interests.  He says, for example, that they “operate with a glaring, overwhelming bias that determines what they do and do not report:  namely, the desire to advance U.S. interests.”  He says that “nationalistic loyalty [is] what drives their reporting.”  He says the American press acts with “the goal of advancing U.S. interests or promoting their nationalistic allegiance.”  And so on.  These statements are so inaccurate they are funny.  Greenwald takes one factor (U.S. national security) that journalists weigh in the publication balance and usually disregard, and he treats it as if it is the only thing journalists care about.  That is not a remotely fair description of American national security journalism.  The truth is that the American media has been more aggressive and successful in discovering and reporting deep national security secrets in the last decade than at any time in American history.  And they have often done so in disregard of vigorous pleas from the government not to.

I don’t want to sound naïve.  Newspapers are human institutions and like all human institutions have biases, interests, agendas, pathologies -- and, yes, attachments.  I am surprised that anyone, including Greenwald, would expect otherwise.

Greenwald’s ultimate point – and it is an interesting one – is that (a) truth-seeking, and (b) journalistic attachment to any particular state, are incompatible.  Normatively I believe this is wrong.  Every media outlet has attachments; no particular perspective has a monopoly on truth-finding; and the best way to get at truth is to let more and more media outlets compete.  But predictively, Greenwald may be right.  Which brings me to point on which he and I agree.  As I said in my original post: “The growing scrutiny of American military and intelligence operations by an increasingly powerful global media that is relatively indifferent to U.S. national security interests is an important reason why U.S. national security secrets are harder than ever to keep.”  The technology-driven globalization of the media, and the global media’s obsessive focus on U.S. global military and intelligence operations, not only affects the secrecy aims of the American government.  It also affects the incentives of the American media, which now has more competition for national security scoops.  One thing journalists cannot stand is being scooped.  And so the interesting question in the coming years will be whether the patriotism of the American media can survive this global media challenge.  I predict that it will, but I also predict that its national attachment will weaken, probably significantly.