Tag Archives: New York Times

Why Murdoch could prove to be the savior of CNN

Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum.

Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Could Rupert Murdoch turn out to be the savior of CNN?

Not directly, of course. After all, his Fox News Channel is a blight upon the civic landscape — a right-wing propaganda machine whose elderly viewers are, according to a 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson study, even less well-informed than people who watch no news at all.

Nevertheless, I felt my pulse quickening last week when I learned that Murdoch is trying to add Time Warner to his international media empire. Among Time Warner’s holdings is CNN. And according to The New York Times, Murdoch would sell the once-great news organization in order to appease federal antitrust regulators.

(Murdoch’s acquisition would not affect Time magazine, a diminished but still valuable news outlet: Time Warner recently set Time adrift after stripping it of most of its assets.Time’s future is far from secure, but at least Rupe won’t have a chance to put Fox News chief Roger Ailes in charge of it.)

As you no doubt already know, CNN in recent years has fallen into the abyss. When I Googled up its increasingly ironic slogan, “The Most Trusted Name in News,” I was taken to a page at CNN.com dating back to 2003, complete with photos of former CNN hosts such as Aaron Brown, Judy Woodruff and Larry King, the seldom-seen Christiane Amanpour and others who evoke a better, more substantive era.

These days, unfortunately, CNN is known mainly for its endless coverage of the missing Malaysian jetliner and for a series of embarrassing screw-ups, such as its misreporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act in 2012 and its false report that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing (to be fair, CNN was not alone on either mistake).

Then, too, there have been a series of mystifyingly bad hires, such as the talentless yipping Brit Piers Morgan to replace Larry King and the creepy Eliot Spitzer to cohost a talk show. Even solid choices like Jake Tapper seem to disappear once brought into the CNN fold. Of course, it’s hard not to disappear when your ratings are lower than those of Fox and MSNBC.

Is CNN worth saving? Absolutely. Its journalistic resources remain formidable. It’s still must-see TV when real news breaks, which certainly has been the case during the past week. Folks who are able to watch CNN International (I’m not among them) tell me it remains a good and serious news source. Anderson Cooper is among the more compelling figures in television news.

But domestically, and especially in prime time, CNN has utterly lost its way — starting at the top, with its self-congratulatory president, Jeff Zucker, who wants us to believe that everything is proceeding according to plan.

The time for a complete overhaul is long overdue. If Rupert Murdoch can help usher CNN into the hands of a new owner that might actually know what to do with it, then bring it on.

Photo (cc) by the World Economic Forum and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A nuanced, layered story that is almost about race

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Vincent (left) and Herbert Campbell in 2009.

The New York Times on Saturday published a feature story about an obscure but layered issue — a fence separating a public housing project in New Haven from the adjoining suburb of Hamden. After some 50 years, the fence is finally coming down.

It’s a story that caught my attention in late 2009, when Thomas MacMillan of the New Haven Independent first reported on efforts to remove the fence, also known as “the Berlin Wall.” It struck me as an example of the kind of nuanced journalism that characterized the Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site that I was tracking for my book “The Wired City.”

On the surface, you might think the issue was about white suburbanites who objected to black public housing residents gaining easy access to their town. But that would be too simple. Hamden has a significant African-American population. MacMillan interviewed two brothers who lived in Hamden and who opposed efforts by New Haven officials to remove the fence. MacMillan quoted Herbert Campbell as saying the fence prevented “all the riff-raff from coming around,” including drug dealers. Vincent Campbell added: “We had a lot of problems in the past. You never know who’s going to break into your house.”

This past May 4, Independent editor Paul Bass — who tells me he first wrote about the fence in 1999, while he was at the now-defunct alt-weekly New Haven Advocate — reported that the fence would be removed after it was discovered that it is actually on the New Haven side of the border. A federal civil-rights investigation helped speed matters along. Here is Bass’ follow-up on the actual tear-down. The daily New Haven Register covered the story as well, and published an editorial hailing the removal.

The New York Times story, by Benjamin Mueller, acknowledges the complexities of the saga, noting that both New Haven and Hamden now have black mayors, and that Hamden residents both black and white appear to be united in their opposition to the fence’s being demolished.

Photo by Thomas MacMillan, courtesy of the New Haven Independent.

A harrowing case of sexual assault on campus

This is long but worth it: a deep dive into a case of sexual assault on campus by Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times. If you’ve ever thought that the college form of justice discriminates against men and subjects them to unfounded accusations, here is an example of just the opposite occurring.

For more, here is my friend Kristen Lombardi’s series “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” which she reported for the Center for Public Integrity.

Please feel free to get angry at George Will all over again.

Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993

In the spring of 1993 I attended a conference on journalism and technology at Columbia University. It was a time when the digital culture that was to emerge was right on the brink: the Internet was not nearly as much of a force in the lives of ordinary people as were commercial services like Prodigy, and Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, had just been released. With The Boston Globe just having run an image of the story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix after that conference, I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.

Future Watch: Lost in space

Why the electronic village may be a very lonely place

Copyright © 1993 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

May 7, 1993: From 500-channel interactive TV to portable electronic newspapers, an unprecedented explosion of information technology awaits us in the next several years. These services, media analysts say, will allow you to tailor news programming to your own interests, do your banking and shopping at home, and make restaurant reservations with a hand-held computer while you’re sitting at a bus stop.

Certainly the speakers were bullish at this past week’s conference on “Newsroom Technology: The Next Generation,” sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, at Columbia University, in New York. Expert after expert talked in rapturous tones about the “information highway,” fiber optics, coaxial cable, digital compression, and the like.

But there’s a dark side to the emerging electronic village, acknowledged almost as an afterthought amid the glowing financial projections and the futuristic technobabble. And that dark side is this: as information becomes increasingly decentralized, there’s a danger that consumers of that information — all of us, in other words — will become more and more isolated from society and from each other.

What’s being lost is the sense of shared cultural experience — the nationwide community that gathered to watch, say, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, or the Watergate hearings, in the 1970s. Media analyst Les Brown, a former television reporter for the New York Times, believes that for all their “insufferable arrogance” during that era, the Big Three networks “served the needs of democracy very well.” With 500 channels, he fears, users will choose news programming that suits their political biases — if they choose any news programming at all.

“Whatever happened to everybody talking to each other?” he asked during the Freedom Forum gathering. “What happened to this big tent we used to have? As the media become more democratized, they may serve the needs of democracy less well.” Continue reading

Talking about Facebook and emotional manipulation

Click on image to watch video

Click on image to watch video

Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and I talked Monday about Facebook’s experiment in surreptitiously changing the emotional content in the newsfeed of some of its users to see if it made them happy or sad.

Author and Microsoft Jaron Larnier weighs in on The New York Times’ opinion pages today, writing:

The manipulation of emotion is no small thing. An estimated 60 percent of suicides are preceded by a mood disorder. Even mild depression has been shown to increase the risk of heart failure by 5 percent; moderate to severe depression increases it by 40 percent.

And if you want to get up to speed quickly, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm has written a terrific all-known-facts round-up.

This is an important issue, and it should not sink beneath a morass of outrage about other issues — although, sadly, it probably will.

Disruptive innovation and the future of news

type_cabinets

Photo via ElationPress.com.

Previously published at Medium.

Toward the end of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s influential 1997 book about why good companies sometimes fail, he writes, “I have found that many of life’s most useful insights are often quite simple.”

Indeed, the fundamental ideas at the heart of his book are so blindingly self-evident that, in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it took a Harvard Business School professor to describe them for the first time. And that poses a problem for Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who recently wrote a scathingly critical essay about Christensen’s theories for the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine.” Call it the Skeptic’s Dilemma.

Christensen offers reams of data and graphs to support his claims, but his argument is easy to understand. Companies generally succeed by improving their products, upgrading their technology, and listening to their customers — processes that are at the heart of what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” What destroys some of those companies are “disruptive innovations” — crude, cheap at first, attacking from below, and gradually (or not) moving up the food chain. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that companies sometimes fail not in spite of doing everything right, but because they did everything right.

Some examples of this phenomenon make it easy to understand. Kodak, focusing its efforts on improving photographic film and paper, paid no attention to digital technology (invented by one of its own engineers), which at first could not compete on quality but which later swallowed the entire industry. Manufacturers of mainframe computers like IBM could not be bothered with the minicomputer market developed by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation; and DEC, in turn, failed to adapt to the personal computer revolution led by the likes of Apple and, yes, IBM. (Christensen shows how the success of the IBM PC actually validates his ideas: the company set up a separate, autonomous division, far from the mothership, to develop its once-ubiquitous personal computer.)

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Christensen has applied his theories to journalism as well. In 2012 he wrote a long essay for Nieman Reports in collaboration with David Skok, a Canadian journalist who was then a Nieman Fellow and is now the digital adviser to Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and James Allworth, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. In the essay, titled “Breaking News,” they describe how Time magazine began in the 1920s as a cheaply produced aggregator, full of “rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications,” and gradually moved up the journalistic chain by hiring reporters and producing original reportage. Today, they note, websites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which began as little more than aggregators, have begun “their march up the value network” in much the same way as Time some 90 years ago.

And though Christensen, Skok, and Allworth don’t say it explicitly, Time magazine, once a disruptive innovator and long since ensconced as a crown jewel of the quality press, is now on the ropes — cast out of the Time Warner empire, as David Carr describes it in the New York Times, with little hope of long-term survival.

***

INTO THIS SEA of obviousness sails Lepore, an award-winning historian and an accomplished journalist. I am an admirer of her 1998 book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and American Identity. Her 2010 New Yorker article on the Tea Party stands as a particularly astute, historically aware examination of a movement that waxes and wanes but that will not (as Eric Cantor recently learned) go away.

Lepore pursues two approaches in her attempted takedown of Christensen. The first is to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma as a cultural critic would, arguing that Christensen popularized a concept — “disruption” — that resonates in an era when we are all fearful of our place in an uncertain, rapidly changing economy. In the face of that uncertainty, notions such as disruption offer a possible way out, provided you can find a way to be the disruptor. She writes:

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

The second approach Lepore pursues is more daring, as she takes the fight from her turf — history and culture — to Christensen’s. According to Lepore, Christensen made some key mistakes. The disk-drive companies that were supposedly done in by disruptive innovators eating away at their businesses from below actually did quite well, she writes. And she claims that his analysis of the steel industry is flawed by his failure to take into account the effects of labor strife. “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” Lepore argues.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

But Lepore saves her real venom for the dubious effects she says the cult of disruption has had on society, from financial services (“it led to a global financial crisis”) to higher education (she partly blames a book Christensen co-authored, The Innovative University, for the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, of which she takes a dim view) to journalism (one of several fields, she writes, with “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings”).

Christensen has not yet written a response; perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t. But in an interview with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek, he asserts that it was hardly his fault if the term “disruption” has become overused and misunderstood:

I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.

As for the “egregious” behavior of which he accuses Lepore, Christensen is especially worked up that she read The Innovator’s Dilemma, published 17 years ago, yet seems not to have read any of his subsequent books — books in which he says he continued to develop and refine his theories about disruptive innovation. He defends his data. And he explains his prediction that Apple’s iPhone would fail (a prediction mocked by Lepore) by saying that he initially thought it was a sustaining innovation that built on less expensive smartphones. Only later, he says, did he realize that it was a disruptive innovation aimed at laptops — less capable than laptops, but also cheaper and easier to carry.

“I just missed that,” he tells Bennett. “And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”

Christensen also refers to Lepore as “Jill” so many times that Bennett finally asks him if he knows her. His response: “I’ve never met her in my life.”

***

CHRISTENSEN’S DESCRIPTION of how his understanding of the iPhone evolved demonstrates a weakness of disruption theory: It’s far easier to explain the rise and fall of companies in terms of sustaining and disruptive innovations after the fact, when you can pick them apart and make them the subject of case studies.

Continue reading

The Boston Globe doubles down on political coverage

Capital section front

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The message last night was straightforward: The Boston Globe was launching a new weekly political section, Capital, in print and online.

It was the messaging, though, that really mattered. About a hundred invited guests mingled in the lobby of the historic Paramount Theatre, elegantly restored by Emerson College, helping themselves to free food and an open bar. Owner/publisher John Henry joined the minglers, working the room like one of the politicians his reporters might write about.

And if you didn’t quite get the messaging, chief executive officer Michael Sheehan and editor Brian McGrory were there helpfully to explain.

“You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success,” Sheehan said while introducing a panel discussion. Added McGrory in his closing remarks: “We are investing in our political coverage at a time when virtually every other paper is retreating.”

If you’re a news junkie, a political junkie or both, enjoy it. The newspaper implosion that has defined the past decade may have slowed, but it hasn’t stopped.

Some 16,200 full-time newspaper jobs disappeared between 2003 and 2012, according to the American Society of News Editors. Just this week, about 20 employees — one-fourth of editorial staff members — were let go by the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, recently sold by Henry to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida. Aaron Kushner, whose print-centric approach was hailed as the salvation of the newspaper business just a year ago, is now dismantling the Orange County Register and its affiliated Southern California properties as quickly as he built them up.

The only major papers bucking this trend are Henry’s Globe and Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, both of which are adding staff and expanding their portfolios. (The New York Times remains relatively healthy, but in recent years the ruling Sulzberger family has tended to define success by keeping cuts to a minimum.)

So what is Capital? Simply put, it’s a Friday-only section comprising features, think pieces, polling, commentary and lots of graphics. The debut consists of 12 pages, including three full-page ads — two of them advocacy messages of the sort that might not have made their way into the paper otherwise — and a smaller bank ad on the front of the section.

The lead story, by Jim O’Sullivan and Matt Viser, looks at the implications of a presidential race that is not likely to have a Massachusetts candidate for the first time since 2000. A poll (and Capital is slated to have lots of polls) suggests that Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker is making some headway, trailing Democratic contender Martha Coakley by a few points and leading Coakley’s rival Steve Grossman by a similar margin.

Among the more intriguing pieces of content is a “social networks dashboard,” put together by SocialSphere of Cambridge, which tracks conversations and the “biggest influencers” on Twitter. The print version has the highlights; online, it goes into more depth. It could use some tweaking, though. For instance, it’s fine to know that Gov. Deval Patrick is +463, but I’d like to see an explanation of what that means.

And if the Globe is looking for suggestions, I’d like to see a more outward-looking orientation, at least in the online version. There are no few links to outside content. How about a curated reading list of the best political coverage appearing elsewhere? (Online, Capital does offer some outside links in an automated feature based on Twitter called “The Talk,” which combines mostly Globe content with a little bit of offsite stuff. I’m also told that a daily newsletter to be written by political reporter Joshua Miller will include non-Globe links.)

One challenge the Globe faces is to come up with compelling content that isn’t tied to the daily news cycle. Today, for instance, the paper’s two most important political stories appear not in Capital but, rather, on the front page: more questions about Scott Brown’s dubious dealings with a Florida firearms company and insider shenanigans involving Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration and the city’s largest construction company. Of necessity, Capital will have to focus on analysis and smart step-back pieces.

During the panel discussion, political editor Cynthia Needham said that a frequent topic of conversation in the newsroom is whether the Globe’s political coverage should appeal to “insiders” or to readers “who dip in every once in a while.” For Capital to work week after week, the answer needs to be both — and then some.

But seriously — how refreshing is it to be able to write about the Globe’s latest expansion instead of the cuts and layoffs that pervade the rest of the newspaper business? We’ll remember these times. Let’s hope they last.

They Posted Clickbait So They’d All Get Rich. What Happened Next Made Them Cry.

WGBH forum

From left: Raney Aronson Rath, deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” who introduced the panel: moderator Joshua Benton, Tim O’Brien, Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman. Photo by Lisa Palone via Twitter.

Cross-posted at WGBH News.

Have we reached the limits of clickbait media exemplified by The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed? According to three experts on Internet journalism, the answer is yes.

At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)

“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”

As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”

Shirky and his fellow panelists — Tim O’Brien, publisher of Bloomberg View, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton — noted that the revenue model being pursued by the Times and others is essentially the same as the system that funds public media outlets such as WGBH, WBUR, NPR and the like.

O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.

To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.

Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.

Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.

That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.

Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.

By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”

Victim or villain? Times and Post analyze Bowe Bergdahl

Afghanistan Prisoner Swap

Bowe Bergdahl

Update: June 3. The Times and the Post change places today, with the Times running a story on Bergdahl’s dubious record in Afghanistan and the Post publishing an article on the problems Bergdahl may have re-integrating into his life in Idaho.

Is Bowe Bergdahl a victim or a villain? In their sidebars to the main story this morning, The New York Times and The Washington Post tell dramatically different tales about the Army sergeant, who was released by the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years as a prisoner of war.

The Times’ story, headlined “Mentally, G.I. Has Long Path Back to Idaho,” by Mark Landler, is sympathetic to Bergdahl. Noting that the soldier was subjected to tremendous stress during his captivity, and possibly torture, Landler writes that Bergdahl will require a great deal of physical and psychological treatment in order for him to be able to reclaim his life. Landler:

It is not yet clear whether Sergeant Bergdahl was tortured by his captors, as were many prisoners of war in North Vietnam. But given the ruthless reputation of those who held him, experts said it was likely, at a minimum, that he faced unremitting fear.

Bergdahl may even have lost some of his ability to communicate in English after years of exposure to terrorists who spoke nothing but Pashto, former Times correspondent (and former captive) David Rohde is quoted as saying.

By contrast, the Post’s article, by Dan Lamothe and Kevin Sieff, focuses on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, questioning whether Bergdahl deserted his unit (touched on only briefly by the Times) and if the subsequent search may have placed U.S. forces in danger (mentioned not at all by the Times).

In print, the Post’s headline is relatively mild: “Among some peers, resentment lingers.” The online version is a scorcher: “Mixed reaction to Bergdahl’s recovery by service members who consider him a deserter.”

Particularly rough is a quote from Javier Ortiz, a former Army medic who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Ortiz tells the Post:

I had a responsibility while I was there to the guys I was with, and that’s why this hits the hardest. Regardless of what you learned while being there, we still have a responsibility to the men to our left and right. It’s terrible, what he did.

The Post also quotes from a long, pseudonymous comment posted below a profile of Bergdahl by the late Michael Hastings that was published in Rolling Stone in 2012.  The comment reads in part:

The Taliban knew that we were looking for him in high numbers and our movements were predictable. Because of Bergdahl, more men were out in danger, and more attacks on friendly camps and positions were conducted while we were out looking for him. His actions impacted the region more than anyone wants to admit.

The use of unverified comments on the Post’s part is extraordinary, as is its quoting from a series of tweets by @CodyFNfootball that went on in a similar vein following Bergdahl’s release. The Post justified it by saying:

The Washington Post contacted the individual running the Twitter account but received no reply. Like the Rolling Stone comment, however, the tweets included enough specifics about Bergdahl’s unit and location to be regarded as potentially credible by many discussing the case.

The comments, of course, were already widely available online, and they match up with other reporting by the Post. (They also match up with Hastings’ largely sympathetic profile of Bergdahl.) So I have no problem with the Post’s using them as long as everyone understands that they may not be what they seem to be.

As for which story we’ll be talking about more in the days to come, the edge has to go to the Post. The Obama administration was already facing criticism, as Jonathan Topaz reports in Politico, for cutting a deal with the Taliban to send five Guantánamo prisoners to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl.

At the very least, the Post’s reporting (and not just the Post’s — see this, by CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example) raises serious questions that demand answers.

On Greenwald, Kinsley is both right and wrong

Michael Kinsley

Michael Kinsley

A few thoughts about Michael Kinsley’s much-criticized New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” an account of his role in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Kinsley is technically correct in asserting that the government has — and should have — the final word when it comes to deciding whether secret information should be made public. Thus I part company with the likes of Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, who, in a post headlined “Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism,” fulminates: “Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to [expose official secrets]. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets ‘must ultimately be made by the government.’”

It’s Nolan’s “should be allowed” that bears scrutiny. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may act to prevent secrets from being revealed if those revelations would cause a serious breach of national security. Here is how the Court put it in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.

The government may also prosecute both leakers and journalists post-publication, as a majority of the Court all but invited the Nixon administration to do in the Pentagon Papers case — and as Harvey Silverglate explains in this 2006 Boston Phoenix essay.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? It’s so easy to conjure up scenarios involving nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like under which censorship and prosecution would be justified that it’s not even worth the effort to spell them out (although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes tried to do just that in Near).

But I emphatically part company with Kinsley over his sneering, dismissive tone, and his shocking failure to understand the role of a free press (or even a press that’s not quite as free as Hamilton Nolan imagines) in a democratic society. Because if the ultimate authority rests with the government, there are nevertheless times when leakers, individual journalists and the institutional press must stand up to the government and risk its wrath in order to serve the public interest. That’s what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War.

And I would argue that that’s what Snowden, Greenwald, Barton Gellman (curiously absent from Special Agent Kinsley’s arrest warrant), The Guardian and The Washington Post did in exposing the NSA’s practices.

I wrote more about the legal background for The Huffington Post last June.

Photo (cc) by the Aspen Institute and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.