Globe wins Pulitzer for ‘story none of us wanted to cover’

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement.
Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

This article was published earlier at WGBH News.

Within moments of the announcement that The Boston Globe had won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Martine Powers tweeted from the newsroom. “This was a story none of us wanted to cover,” she quoted editor Brian McGrory as saying. The staff, she said, then observed a moment of silence at McGrory’s request for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Globe easily could have won two or three Pulitzers for its coverage of the bombings and their aftermath. The breaking-news award, of course, was well-deserved, and frankly it was unimaginable that it would go to anyone else. But the paper also had worthy marathon-related finalists in Breaking News Photography (John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan) as well as Commentary (Kevin Cullen, who emerged as the voice and conscience of the city after the attack).

McGrory’s classy response to winning underscores the sad reality that the Globe’s excellent coverage was driven by a terrible tragedy — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. (The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing, as Dante Ramos was honored for a non-marathon-related topic: improving the city’s night life.)

The Pulitzer also caps what has been a remarkable year for the Globe. On Marathon Monday 2013, McGrory was relatively untested as editor and the paper’s prospects were uncertain, as the New York Times Co. was trying to unload it for the second time in four years.

The Globe’s marathon coverage — widely praised long before today’s Pulitzers were announced — have defined McGrory’s brief term as editor as surely as the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage (which earned a Pulitzer for Public Service) defined Marty Baron’s. Moreover, the Globe now has a local, deep-pockets owner in John Henry who’s willing to invest in journalism.

But the focus should be on Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their families and all the other survivors. Good for McGrory for reminding everyone of that.

A couple of other Pulitzer notes:

• A lot of observers were waiting to see whether the judges would honor the stories based on the Edward Snowden leaks. They did, as the Pulitzer for Public Service went to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then affiliated with The Guardian and now with the start-up First Look Media, as well as Barton Gellman of the Post, were the recipients of the Snowden leaks, which revealed a vast U.S. spying apparatus keeping track of ordinary citizens and world leaders both in the United States and abroad.

The choice is bound to be controversial in some circles. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has already called the award “a disgrace.” But it was the ultimate example of journalism speaking truth to power, and thus was a worthy choice.

• The oddest move was the Pulitzer judges’ decision not to award a prize in Feature Writing. I thought it might go to the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” or possibly to the Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev.” (I should note that neither of those stories was listed as a finalist.)

The Pulitzer process can be mysterious. But it would be interesting to see if someone can pry some information out of the judges to find out why they believed there wasn’t a single feature story in 2013 worthy of journalism’s highest honor.

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What “special protections” is Carr talking about?

David Carr
David Carr

There are a couple of problems with David Carr’s column in The New York Times on Glenn Greenwald and the line between journalism and activism.

First, Greenwald isn’t really a close call. He is an opinionated liberal columnist and blogger who works for a large, well-regarded news organization, The Guardian. The key: he’s independent. No advocacy group is paying his salary. If we must draw lines, Greenwald is well on the journalistic side of the divide.

What I really want to see more discussion of, though, is Carr’s assertion that “when it comes to divulging national secrets, the law grants journalists special protections that are afforded to no one else.” What is Carr talking about?

As I explained recently, the Espionage Act, under which Edward Snowden has been charged in the National Security Agency leaks, makes no distinction between leaking classified information and publishing classified information.

The question of whether to prosecute news organizations came up after the Pentagon Papers and again after the revelation of the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping program. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has called for journalists to be prosecuted over the Snowden leaks.

Yes, there are limited protections for journalists trying to shield their sources in 49 states. But I don’t think that’s what Carr was referring to. In any case, there are no shield protections at the federal level.

So help me out here. What do you think Carr has in mind?

Edward Snowden and the peril facing journalism

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The editors of The New York Times appear to have forgotten an important principle: the First Amendment is for all of us, and does not grant any special privileges to the institutional press. Thus if Edward Snowden is prosecuted for leaking classified documents about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs, the news organizations that published those documents could face criminal charges as well.

The possibility that journalists could be in legal jeopardy for doing their jobs seems not to have occurred to whoever wrote an editorial in today’s Times, which argues that Snowden should be prepared to pay the price for civil disobedience by way of his leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Though the editorial dismisses the absurd notion that Snowden has committed treason, it concludes with this observation, which comes across as semi-sympathetic but contains toxic implications: “Mr. Snowden may well be going to jail for exposing practices that should never have been secret in the first place.”

In fact, if Snowden, as seems likely, is charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, there is nothing to stop the government from going after The Washington Post as well — or The Guardian, if someone would like to seek extradition of Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story, and his editor, Alan Rusbridger.

American journalists in these situations operate on the premise that they are free to publish information even if the source or sources who gave it to them violated the law in obtaining it. That’s largely true — First Amendment protections against censorship are extraordinarily high. The corollary, though, is that there may be consequences to be paid post-publication.

The best-known example is the Pentagon Papers, a case that should be near and dear to the hearts of Times editors. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Times and the Post could not be prevented from publishing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

But as civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in a 2006 article for The Boston Phoenix, five of the nine justices essentially invited the government to file charges against the Times and the Post after publication — and the Nixon administration was preparing to do just that before it got caught up in the burgeoning Watergate scandal.

Silverglate was concerned that the Times faced possible charges under the Espionage Act for revealing the existence of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. Even though the program illegally circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, then-president George W. Bush called the Times’ reporting “a shameful act” — and Gabriel Schoenfeld, writing in Commentary, was just one on the neocon right who argued that the Times should be prosecuted.

More recently, the Times published many of the WikiLeaks documents exposed by Bradley Manning, who is now on trial and who may face a life sentence. And in 2010 John Cook posted a short piece in Gawker making the commonsense observation that the Times potential liability was precisely the same as that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had been targeted by Attorney General Eric Holder. Cook wrote:

So if it was a crime when Assange obtained the database, why wasn’t it a crime when the Times did? The Espionage Act makes no distinctions when it comes to sources of defense information: It’s a crime to “obtain [it] from any person, or from any source whatever.” Assange got it from Manning, the Times got it from the Guardian; both transactions are equally criminal under the act.

More than a year ago, I argued that President Barack Obama was engaged in a “war on journalism” stemming from his administration’s obsession with rooting out leakers. Recently we learned that the Justice Department had spied on the Associated Press and on Fox News reporter James Rosen, and had even gotten a judge to sign a search warrant identifying Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator. Now U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is calling for journalists to be prosecuted for publishing the NSA documents leaked by Snowden.

This is a moment of great peril for journalism. With 56 percent of Americans saying they don’t mind if the government monitors their phone records, public opinion is hardly on the side of whistleblowers and the news organizations that work with them.

Whether we approve of everything Edward Snowden did or not, The New York Times and others in our craft ought to show more solidarity. If he is in trouble, so are all of us.

The Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word

The New York Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word takes an interesting turn today. The paper’s print and online editions diverge, and the Times manages to report on a debate over torture without quite acknowledging that the Bush administration, uh, tortured terrorism suspects.

The Times online

First, the headline. On the front page of the print edition you’ll find this: “Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again.” Online, though, is the considerably more frank “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture.” Below the headline is a story summary that says, “The raid that led to Bin Laden’s death has raised anew the issue of using torture to gain intelligence.”

On the face of it, that seems like a straightforward acknowledgement that some suspects were tortured, which would be something of a landmark for the Times. Two years ago, then-public editor Clark Hoyt wrote that Times editors had decided not to describe waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics as “torture,” although it would quote critics as saying so. Indeed, Hoyt added, the Times had come under some criticism even for adopting the word “brutal” to describe those methods.

The Times in print

When you read today’s story, by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, you learn that the “T”-word rule is still in effect. Here’s how it begins:

Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.

The “T”-word appears repeatedly in the story, but not as a description of what actually took place. Rather, it is in the context of “a national debate about torture,” Barack Obama’s past statements that waterboarding and other harsh methods were “torture,” efforts to avoid “a partisan battle over torture” and the like.

Among those quoted as claiming torture (OK, enhanced interrogation techniques) worked are Bush-era torture apologist John Yoo and U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., last seen subjecting Muslim-Americans to psychological torture at his Star Chamber hearings on Capitol Hill.

Now, let’s be clear. There is no evidence that waterboarding and other forms of torture had anything to do with producing the intelligence needed to track down Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it’s been reported that the worst of the Guantánamo terrorists, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, tried to divert interrogators away from bin Laden’s courier despite having been tortured repeatedly. In a withering takedown of the pro-torture argument, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen writes at the Atlantic:

It is entirely possible that some valuable intelligence information about bin Laden’s couriers was gleaned from long-ago waterboarding. And it is possible that some of this information was part of what Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday called a “mosaic” of information that led to bin Laden’s demise. But it is beyond doubt that the United States was able to track and then kill its arch enemy in Abbottabad based upon regular old gumshoe detective work, both traditional and innovative, that occurred years and years after the detainees in question were reportedly tortured. How exactly does that suffice to restore credibility to the pro-torture argument?

And just in case you’re not convinced that waterboarding is torture, consider the historical evidence, which I laid out in a piece for the Guardian last year. The Times frankly referred to waterboarding as torture in 1945 in reporting on its use against American prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese. No less an authority than U.S. Sen. John McCain has noted that some Japanese officers were executed for waterboarding prisoners. And Harvard’s Shorenstein Center last year produced a study showing that waterboarding was routinely described as torture until the Bush White House started using it against terrorism suspects.

The Times, as our leading news organization, has harmed the public discourse by refusing to call torture by its proper name. Today’s story is just another example of how it has tied itself into knots in its ongoing attempt to avoid saying the obvious.

More: This commentary has now been posted at the Guardian.

The New York Times and the T-word

Peter King

The New York Times has a great story today on U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who is presiding over repugnant hearings into the loyalty of Muslim-Americans. Reporter Scott Shane reminds us that King made his reputation as a staunch supporter of the Irish Republican Army, which for years fought for independence from Britain in attacks that included the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians.

Yet I was struck by Shane’s lede, which frankly describes the IRA as “a terror group.” I don’t have any quarrel with that. But I was surprised, given the Times’ well-known squeamishness over using the T-word to describe Islamist organizations such as Hamas, which has engaged in suicide bombings against civilian targets in its war against Israel.

As the Times’ then-public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote in 2008, “To the consternation of many, The Times does not call Hamas a terrorist organization, though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel.” It’s a policy that has put the Times in an awkward position previously, as in 2010, when the paper reported on criticism of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, for failing to label Hamas a terrorist group.

The United States, Canada, Israel, Japan and the European Union have all classified Hamas as a terrorist organization.

King’s response to being called out as a hypocrite is truly rancid, as he reveals that he couldn’t care less about the lives of British civilians who were killed in IRA attacks. “I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel,” he tells the Times. “The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

And in the 1980s, King had this to say: “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.”

Shane attempts to make comparisons between the IRA and Al Qaeda, and concludes — correctly — that Al Qaeda is considerably worse. But the parallels between the IRA and Hamas seem pretty obvious.

The IRA engaged in terrorist attacks, but gradually moved toward a renunciation of such attacks as it uneasily groped its way toward a peace settlement with Britain and participation in government.

Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, may or may not be capable of moving toward a peace settlement with Israel. But certainly it was unclear at a similar stage as to whether the IRA was capable of making such a transition.

It’s pretty simple. Either the IRA and Hamas are/were terrorist organizations, or neither is. I hope public editor Arthur Brisbane will explain why it’s all right for the Times to call the IRA a “terror group” when it refuses to do the same with respect to Hamas.