By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Keller on the SWIFT story

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.

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  1. John Galt

    It should have been published. It should have not been a shock to anyone’s system. As Keystone Kops as this DoJ appears, this step was obvious, although it’s doubtful any ObL cash has been transferred this way since Sept 11th. All trails point to Jiddah and Bush&Co are up to their necks.

  2. jt

    re: nitpick #2 …Wasn’t the Bay of Pigs “media myth” created by E. Clifton Daniel, then-managing editor, who mentioned it in a speech in the mid-60s to try to embarrass Scotty Reston? (Daniel later repeated the tale to Gay Talese, who used the “media myth” as chapter one of the Kingdom and the Power.)

  3. Dan Kennedy

    JT — You’re right about Clifton Daniel, but JFK had already set the tone. Instructive to read the memoirs of Turner Catledge, who was managing editor at the time of the Bay of Pigs. In his view, nothing was left out except a couple of details that couldn’t be confirmed, and I think the facts are on his side. I wrote a paper on this years ago that was published in Journalism Quarterly. I should try to get it online sometime.

  4. Tim Race, a business editor at The New York Times

    Dan: Did YOU let anyone edit this?Bill Keller doesn’t need a mid-level Times editor like me sticking up for him. But your critiques of two of the three aspects of his letter that you find “odd” could have used an editor’s “Huh?” question. In No. 1, you seem to be saying that Keller blamed conservative critics for revealing the existence and details of the financial anti-terrorism program. And then you ding him for it. In fact, Keller’s own words make clear that he is discussing the critics’ contention that revealing the program’s existence was unpatriotic and dangerous. You’re either misreading Keller’s words or you could have used an editor’s help in expressing whatever it was you meant to say.In No. 2, it simply isn’t clear what historic fallacy you think Keller was perpetuating in citing Kennedy’s later regrets about the Bay of Pig coverage. Keller, of all people, should know WHAT, exactly? (I’m acutally more curious about this one, because I suspect you’re trying to raise an interesting point.)

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Tim — Thank you for writing. Keller quite clearly is suggesting that critics are calling even more attention to the story by “yelling,” and that they are therefore being hypocrites for not shutting up and letting the story die out or go away or something. That is absurd. As for Point #2, I recommend a paper I wrote that was published in Journalism Quarterly in its Autumn 1986 edition. I should get it online one of these days. The short version: Turner Catledge, the managing editor during the Bay of Pigs, fought a long, and ultimately losing, battle against the myth begun by JFK.

  6. Jeseppi Trade Wildfeather

    Bravo! I appreciated reading your commentary on Keller’s response this morning. You are doing your homework. I picked up on the “untruth” concerning the Bay of Pigs immediately, as you did. We must hold all powerful people strictly accountable to their words today, if we intend to preserve our freedom. We must remember that media is propaganda. When persons such as Keller put their pen to paper, it takes people with your level of astuteness to keep clarity and honesty in the ascendancy. I feel pleased to have discovered your blog and will pipe you in. -Jeseppi Trade Wildfeather

  7. Peter

    Dan- I take issue with your third criticism. As a New Yorker, I am acutely aware of living in a place that is a top target of terrorists. Secondly, I have the experience that most Americans don’t of having lived through a terrorist attack right down the street that I could see, hear touch and smell. To suggest that I, of all people, don’t understand the threat of terrorism or appreciate its consequences, is absurd. That, I think, is the point Keller was trying to make, and I think it’s a valid one. The New Yorkers I know don’t walk around in self-pity and fear, but we sure as hell don’t sympathize with the bastards who attacked our home, as the Times’ critics like to argue.

  8. KRad

    Keller’s comment to the effect that the terrorists have long been on notice that the US is tracking financial transactions is by itself deliberately facetious. If “the terrorists” have long been on notice, then how can it be said that the American public didn’t know about it, and that their ignorance required the Times to publish the article? Either the information was already out there, or it wasn’t; if it was, then there would be no “compelling” need to publish the article, and if there was a “compelling” need to publish the article, then the terrorists didn’t know about the information.

  9. Anonymous

    Tim,Looks like NO editing is going on; “acutally”?

  10. MeTheSheeple

    krad, the White House announced financial-network crackdowns almost immediately after Sept. 11. The New York Times piece covered a different network being followed in a different way, without warrants, in a much broader sense.If I were a terrorist, I would likely expect such monitoring would take place. That’s probably where Keller is coming from.As a citizen, I would have hoped that, well, warrants might have been sought.In short, the Times piece reports on a logical extension of a previous crackdown, but includes details and substance not known publicly before. Your argument seems to skip over many important nuances and points.

  11. Don

    Please see blog “Conflicts.”

  12. la'ikoa

    The dialogue on the role of the media as a check to government is an important one. However, that’s not what’s going on. Instead, we’re focusing on a story that was already common knowledge to anyone who reads the press releases from the White House and Justice Department.George W. Bush exposed the plan to track international bank accounts in Sept. 2001. He wrote an Executive Order to cover his actions. Then the US government reported how they would implement the program to the United Nations.It’s all available on the Internet and compiled on my blog. Now we can all sleep more soundly (or not) knowing our government is endangering itself and that the American public isn’t paying attention to what the government is saying or doing. (And that’s why we need a press that does!)Story here.

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