Reporting on national security in the age of Edward Snowden

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

WASHINGTON — As governments throughout the world try invasive methods to penetrate newsroom secrets, top journalists use no-tech methods: meeting sources outside microphone range, avoiding phone and email messages and keeping pencil — not electronic — notes.

“We’re going back to old-time shoe leather reporting,” said New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger. “We try not to leave a trace — with no electronic footprint.”

But he told a “Journalism After Snowden” conference at the Newseum last Thursday that while journalists can protect their own data and sources, they can’t control what hackers can do to intercept their electronic communications.

The conference was the last in a series exploring issues raised by Edward Snowden’s massive leaking of National Security Agency documents.

Sanger said the Times’ greatest concern is not the NSA but with protecting communications with staffers around the world, where surveillance can potentially obtain drafts of stories.

He and other speakers noted that the U.S. government has obtained employees’ records and that that the recent Jeffrey Sterling espionage conviction shows that prosecutions could succeed without forcing a reporter to testify.

In that case Times reporter James Risen fought a seven-year battle to protect confidential sources, but the government helped make its case by producing phone calls and email contacts between Risen and Sterling.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his Washington Post counterpart, Marty Baron, said they decide officials’ requests to withhold national security information on a case-by-case basis.

They said they won’t surprise officials by publishing potentially dangerous information but will give them a chance to make their case against publishing.

Baquet will hear them out and push them hard for specifics about how publication can harm national security. He said they have to prove that printing risks “life and limb.”

Baron said, “We don’t publish sources and methods. We try to balance national security concerns with the public interest. It comes down to our judgment.”

Both editors said the press should do more, not less, probing of national security issues.

Baquet sees more secrecy in national security than ever, saying for example that it’s “stunning” how little we know about drone warfare. “It’s an undeclared, undiscussed and uncovered issue around the world.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

The Newseum caves in on reporters’ access

Yes, that’s the First Amendment carved onto the vertical slate in front of the Newseum.

For many of us, it began with a tweet Thursday morning from Boston Globe editor Marty Baron:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/GlobeMartyBaron/status/213267379352907778″%5D

Clicking led to a blog post by Globe political reporter Matt Viser, who had covered an event by Mitt Romney in Washington at the Newseum, a museum about journalism and the importance of the First Amendment. Toward the end, as Baron noted, came this rather startling paragraph:

Romney stayed to take questions. But following his 28-minute address — held at the Newseum, which is situated between the US Capitol and the White House — reporters were escorted out of the room and weren’t allowed to listen to the questions.

In the Newseum? The irony couldn’t have been any thicker. (And not just Romney. See update below.) As Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone put it a short time later:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/mlcalderone/status/213290979799736321″%5D

Also jumping in was New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who guessed — correctly, as it turned out — how the Newseum would respond:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu/status/213290735695446018″%5D

Media blogger Jim Romenesko wrote that he contacted Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson and “suggested … that the Newseum put a clause in its room-rental contracts requiring journalists be respected in the House of Journalism — for example, not be marched out of a room when it’s time for politicians to face questions.” Please click to read Thompson’s response, but the short version is that Rosen’s prediction was on the mark. You’ll also see my suggestion for how Thompson should have responded.

So those are the facts. What are we to make of this?

First, I’m inclined to give the Romney campaign half a pass here. It is hardly unusual for presidential candidates to hold events from which the media are excluded. You may recall that one of the worst moments of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was when he complained to supporters at a no-media event about Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion.” In that case, a supporter named Mayhill Fowler, who also blogged for the Huffington Post, decided to write it up.

But Romney only gets half a pass because he and his handlers should have known that excluding reporters from an event in the “House of Journalism,” as Romenesko called it, would create unwanted controversy in a way that excluding them from a fundraiser in a hotel banquet hall wouldn’t.

Second, and more important, the Newseum’s response was reprehensible. I’m reasonably sure officials there didn’t know Romney was going to lower the cone of silence. Maybe it’s never happened before. But the proper response would have been to express chagrin and promise that steps would be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public. But as of this writing there’s been nothing from the Newseum other than Thompson’s statement and this tweet from Thursday:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Newseum/status/213309765412073473″%5D

No doubt the Newseum needs the rent money. According to its tax filings for 2010, the most recent that’s publicly available at GuideStar, the museum took in $73.4 million and spent $78.8 million, for a deficit of $5.4 million.

On Thursday, though, Newseum officials stepped in it in a way that could end up costing them a lot more in future donations than they’ve ever made in private rentals. My guess is the proverbial high-level conversations are taking place right now.

By the way, Viser is back with a more comprehensive story today.

Update: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers takes a swipe at Calderone, his predecessor in the job, saying that Obama “did the exact same thing” at the Newseum back in March. Yes, it should have been news then. And it only underscores that it’s long past time for the Newseum to prohibit private groups that rent its facilities from banning reporters from their events.

Photo (cc) by David Monack and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.