[ed. - Our dilligent dumpster divers on 43rd Street have located the first draft of Bill Keller's patient explanation of the New York Times' ethics policy. Related: In New York, Scrappy Newspaper Struggles For Survival]
From the Desk of Bill Keller
Executive Editor, The New York Times
With my hectic schedule of Pulitzer committees and Columbia Journalism School symposia, I don't always have time to answer my mail as fully as etiquette demands. Lord knows I'll be in the Audi headed to a Friday night ACLU cocktail benefit in the Hamptons when my Blackberry starts beeping and I have to pull over on the Long Island Expressway, and it turns out to be a text message from some idiot in Wistucky bitching about the last Krugman column. But our story about the government's surveillance of international banking records has generated a few questions and concerns that I take very seriously. As the editor responsible for the difficult decision to publish that story, I'd like to offer a personal response. I'll type v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y so you morons with questions and concerns finally understand.
Some of the incoming mail quotes the spittle-flecked 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, how does somebody that retarded get my email? Cripes, I'm going to have a long chat with Network Services this week.) Some comes from not-quite-as-stupid readers who have considered the story in question and still wonder whether publishing such material is wise. Hey, go figure. Thankfully some comes from a better class of readers who are grateful for the information, and attach e-Vites to fabulous midweek gallery openings on the Upper West Side.
It's an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Jihadi Accountant and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? I'll tell you who we are, pal. We are journalists - the people whom the inventors of this country specifically appointed to be the protectors of this little experiment we call the "human race" against the privations of out-of-control Texas Oil Nazis. And if you check your Constitution, I don't think you'll see anything in there about the right to clog up the press's inbox with your stupid Rush Limbaugh talking points.
Another unusual and powerful thing given us is the actual press itself - the mighty ABB ZC-1100 rotary plate drive with electronically actuated belt tensioning. The founders of the industrial printing equipment business knew the power of this machine was too precious to entrust to untrained "bloggers" who might get crushed in its immense inky rollers, and wisely set a price to insure it would only be used by professionally accredited journalists - a cool $4 million per unit, not including maintenance.
The power that has been given us is not something to be taken lightly. The responsibility of it weighs most heavily on us when an issue involves national security, and especially national security in times of war. Heavy is the head who wears the thorny crown of journalism; for, if the Force is allowed to fall into the wrong hands, there will be imbalance in the Galaxy. I've only participated in a few such cases, but they are among the most agonizing decisions I've faced as an editor.
The press and the government generally start out from opposite corners in such cases. In the bad corner, weighing in at five trillion pounds, hailing from Washington DC, with a record of 17-1-1 and 14 knockouts, American "The Dissent Crusher" Governmennnnnnnnt. For example, some members of the Administration have argued over the past three years that when our reporters describe sectarian violence and insurgency in Iraq, we risk demoralizing the nation and giving comfort to the "enemy." On the other hand, some members of the insurgency have persuasively argued that we have not given enough coverage to violence. Who to believe? The Editors have steadfastly taken our default neutral position and present a careful balance of 50% Iraq violence, so that you - the uniformed cretin - are entrusted with the unbiased, balanced information you need to kayo this illegitimate glass-jawed Administration.
If we have failed, it has 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. His brother felt similarly after we failed to alert the public to the non-seaworthiness of the '66 Olds Delmont. Some of the reporting in The Times and elsewhere prior to the war in Iraq was criticized for not being skeptical enough of the Administration's claims about the Iraqi threat, especially by the Saddam Administration and others in the know. The question we start with as journalists is not "why publish?" but "why would we withhold information of significance?" We have sometimes done so, but if a story contains details that could serve those hostile to the U.S., I'd consider that pretty "significant," wouldn't you?
Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff — but when you're dealing with critics who apparently have elementary educations, you might blow their minds by jacking the stuff up to junior high level stuff, let alone advanced graduate journalism school ethics stuff.
Since September 11, 2001, our government has launched broad and secret anti-terror monitoring programs without seeking authorizing legislation and without fully briefing me, or others in the constitutional government-counterbalance community. Yes, most Americans seem to support extraordinary measures in defense against this "extraordinary" threat. Baa, baa, baaaa. But some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to the Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government's actions and over the adequacy of oversight. We believe The Times and others in the press have an obligation to the public to print the discomforting information. We also believe that it is critical that the identity of the discomforted officials must remain forever secret, for they have spoken on the consecrated bond of background non-attribution, and exposing them might endanger their willingness to expose future publication of other discomforting information. Besides, it does not serve the public interest because I can't imagine that the public has any interest in who these discomforted officials are.
Our decision to publish the story of the Administration's penetration of the international banking system followed weeks of discussion between Administration officials and The Times, not only the reporters who wrote the story but senior editors, including me. We listened patiently and attentively, seldom checking our wristwatches and cell phones. Some of us even had to cancel a squash game to listen to these idiots drone on for a half hour with their sob stories about "endangered terror investigations," yada yada yada. We discussed the matter extensively within the paper. We spoke to others — national security experts outside the Administration — for their counsel before we ran with it. 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. Now, thanks to our work reporting the story, the non-Administration security experts tell us they will instead concentrate their violence on Red Country backwaters like Omaha.
The Administration case for holding the story had two parts, if I glean a rough sense out of it: first that the program is good — that it is legal, that there are safeguards against abuse of privacy, and that it has been valuable in deterring and prosecuting terrorists. And, second, that exposing this program would put its usefulness at risk.
Okay, so help me out here. Maybe I'm the stupid guy. Let's take argument part number one, that the program is "good." I'm sorry, but aren't we suppose to be in some big "War on Terror" or something? At least that's what the whiney Adminstration guy in a JCPenney suit kept arguing in my office. And if we are in a "War," doesn't that mean that if the program is "good" for one side, it is by definition bad for the other side? With this "good" talk, the Administration is asking us to pass judgment and pick sides in their "terrorism" wild goose chase, and frankly, that's not our job. If you listen to the insurgency, the program is anything but "good" and "legal," and has few safeguards against privacy invasion. The job of the press is to weigh these competing agendas, and to act in our constitutional role as a bulwark against the US government.
So let's look at JCPenney guy's concern number two: that describing this program would endanger it. The central argument we heard from officials at senior levels was that international bankers would stop cooperating, would resist, if this program saw the light of day. We found this argument puzzling. Maybe it was because he was making it right when the lunch cart rolled in, and I was distracted deciding between the tuna salad and the asiago turkey club. Anyhow, later that afternoon I posed the argument to my squash partner Dieter (who works for DeuscheBank) and asked him to let me know if he had any qualms about it. We've had dinner at Le Cirque twice since then, and I can't remember him even bringing the subject up.
By the way, we heard similar arguments against publishing last year's reporting on the NSA eavesdropping program. We were told then that our article would mean the death of that program and help the ooo-ooh, scary bad terrorist. As far as I know, that hasn't happened. While our coverage has led to much public debate and new congressional oversight, has it had any impact one way or another on anything, other than creating debate and information and oversight? For all you know, our reporting on the NSA program has actually resulted in reducing terror. Have you been blown up in a terror attack since our Pulitzer-winning NSA series, Mister Flood Bill Keller's Inbox? I didn't think so. And you're welcome.
I can appreciate that other conscientious people could have gone through the process I've outlined above and come to a different conclusion. Not totally understand, mind you, but I appreciate it completely. But nobody should think that we made this decision casually, with any undo animus toward the thankfully temporary Administration in Washington, or without fully weighing the issues. So if you'll excuse me, I've got a 3 o'clock appointment at the squash club.