There is much good in New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s letter to readers explaining why the Times decided to publish details of the anti-terrorism program that tracks financial transactions. More than anything, the mere fact that he believes journalists must explain themselves to the public shows the how deeply the notion of transparency has taken root.
Still, three aspects of his letter strike me as odd. I’ll take them one at a time.
1. Consider how Keller begins his second paragraph:
Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government’s anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that’s the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.) [My emphasis.]
Did Keller let anyone edit this? It was the Times and other news organizations that revealed the existence and the details of this program — not angry bloggers and pundits. For Keller to try to toss the blame back into the laps of his critics suggests that he himself was pretty angry when he sat down to write. Unseemly.
2. Later on, Keller pulls an old trope out of his hat:
Our default position — our job — is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair and accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco. [My emphasis.]
This is accurate but not true. On the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Times published a front-page story, above the fold, reporting that U.S.-trained Cuban exiles were prepared to invade their homeland at any time. Two details were omitted, neither of which the Times’ editors could be sure about: the role of the CIA and the date of the invasion. (Of course, if the date had been published, the White House simply would have changed it.)
At first Kennedy was furious. But some time later, after the invasion had ended in disaster, he did indeed voice his now-famous regret that the Times hadn’t published all it knew, thus creating a media myth that has endured to this day. Keller, of all people, should know that.
3. Finally, Keller writes:
It’s worth mentioning that the reporters and editors responsible for this story live in two places — New York and the Washington area — that are tragically established targets for terrorist violence. The question of preventing terror is not abstract to us.
Huh? It seems here that he’s trying to say we shouldn’t question his motives because, if there’s a terrorist attack, Times people might be among the victims. Well, gee. So would a lot of other folks.
Sorry to nitpick. I actually find Keller’s argument for publishing fairly compelling. He’s especially persuasive in making the point that SWIFT, the international consortium that administers the data, will continue to cooperate as long as the operation is legal (and shouldn’t if it isn’t), and that the terrorists have long been on notice that we are doing everything we can to track their finances.
But it would have been that much stronger without the self-pitying touches and the ahistorical take on the Bay of Pigs.