By Byron Calame
New York Times Public Editor
(Page 7 of 7)
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... although this is a risky venture with the reputation of The Times on the line, I think Mr. Keller’s strategy will ultimately reinforce the impenetrable granite shield of ethics surrounding core news coverage in the daily sections, as well as restaurant reviews. The many Times readers who are consumers of serious news should be heartened by Mr. Keller’s unshakeable commitment to serious journalism ("j-core," as we call it in the press ethics business) as well as his lantern jaw and piercing blue eyes.
ITEM 4: FURNITURE DESIGNER MEA CULPA
In the October 8 edition of The Times' Sassy UrbanLife MetroLiving magazine supplement, the lounge chair pictured on page 35 was misidentified as a design by Alvar Aalto. Several readers wrote to point out that the chair was, of course, designed by Eero Saarinen. The Times deeply regrets the error, and apologizes to all who were upset or offended by it. The staff captioner responsible for the mistake has been dismissed.
ITEM 5: BANKING DATA: OOPSIE
One final note -- the job of public editor requires me to probe and question the published work and wisdom of Times journalists, even when my constant probing and poking and prodding and questioning invariably turns out to be a monumental waste of time because the work and wisdom has already been purified though layers and layers of The Times' fail-safe editorial charcoal filtering system. But here at The Times, "Qualtiy is Job One," and this means there’s an extra special responsibility for me, as public editor, to acknowledge potentially flawed assessments by myself, on those extra special occasions when I, and my assessments, have raised doubts among myself and I and me.
Such occasion occurred recently. My July 2 column strongly supported The Times’s decision to publish an article on a once-secret government banking-data surveillance program known as SWIFT. The article in question, "Watch Out! BushCo is Sniffing At Your Arrears," appear on page C1 of the June 23 Insurgent Finance magazine section. After pondering this issue for several months, I eventually had a nagging little ethical lighbulb light up that whispered, "hey, whoa there Byron, maybe you and me were just a tad off base with myself and I."
Obviously, then and now, there were many, many reasons to publish the so-called "controversial" article. First, the public has a sacred right to know what their government is up to. This is especially true when this vital information comes straight from unnamed high-ranking current and former State Department sources speaking on strict conditions of deep background anonymity. Second, by all appearances the SWIFT program was a sort of an international financial "speed trap." By putting out an informational "breaker-one-nine" on the front page "CB radio" to tell all them "jihadi gearjammers" to "watch out for CIA smokies at the Brussels off-ramp," The Times article likely helped reduce dangerous terrorist financial speeding along the international information highways. But did we get any credit for this from the Bush administration? Of course not. Instead of promoting highway safety awareness, these sadistic "county mounties" wanted to use their precious SWIFT "radar gun" to entrap unsuspecting financial motorist for a night in the Gitmo County lock-up.
But, now that I've had the chance to think it over for a while, I've started to persuade me that despite these important reasons for disclosure of the program, they were ever-so-slightly outweighed by two factors to which I and myself had possibly given too little emphasis. First, while the surveillance program was potentially at odds with privacy laws in the EU, North Korea and Iran, it turns out that neither I nor The Times legal staff nor myself have been able to find evidence that the surveillance program was technically illegal under United States laws. Yeah, I know, go figure. It surprised the hell out of me too. I guess US banking laws are sort of like the Alabama civil code that lets you marry your twelve year old cousin or something. Unless new incoming House Intelligence Committee Chairman Alcee Hastings grandfathers in a fix for this glaring loophole, the Adminstration escapes on a technicality.
Second, and equally surprising, there apparently weren’t any abuses of private data linked to the program. Yes, I know as well as you do that the administration and their closeted gay pedophile allies in Congress probably had plenty of data abuses planned - data waterboarding, data pederasty, data humiliation, IM-ing underaged data with creepy suggestive data messages - but as far as our investigators have found nothing that was actually implemented. Ironically, it was probably The Times disclosure of the program and its resulting shutdown that saved the administration from another embarrassing abuse scandal. Hey guys, you're welcome.
But anyhoo, long-story-short, while it’s a close call now as it was then, I guess I don’t think the article should have been published.
But I mean, seriously, can you blame me or the editors or I for previously defending it? You try sitting in on a lunch meeting while a bunch of stupid administration reps beg and plead you not to print a story, claiming that "we're tracking Sheik Abdul-al-Whatzis, bla bla bla." The idiots are sitting right there telling tells you they're hiding something, which makes it even more newsworthy and juicy and scandalous! And when you print the story they start in with the vicious attacks, like you had whipped out your cell phone at Le Cirque or something. Always with the screaming and whining about national security "secrets." I mean, how freaking "secret" can it be? For crissakes, it's been on the front page of the New York Times!
Now I realize who is to blame for keeping me from seeing these matters more clearly, earlier, in what I already admitted to you and me was a close call - the inept and vicious Bush administration. They should have known their whine campaign would trigger my instinctive, j-school-honed affinity for the underdog, and my enduring faith in a free press — two traits that I warned readers, and my self, about in my first column. "Don't get mixed up with a PubEd like me, baby," I told you and me. "Whenever a scrappy underdog needs affinity, or a endangered free press needs enduring faith, I'll be gone like a cool breeze."
But that's all water under the bridge now. Bottom line, I'm magnanimous enough to admit to the Bush Administration, as well as my keen self-probing journalistic self-conscious, that hey okay, maybe you guys had a point there. Not that I'm expecting a bouquet of roses, because let's face it: there's just no pleasing some people. Undoubtably, this column will cause Bush supporters to further howl and moan and scream about being gypped. As Times sports editor Tom Jolley notes, you guys are worse than that whiney Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops after the Oregon game.
To you whiney little whine-babies, I can only tell you that as public editor and final official arbiter of this complicated controversy, "I calls 'em like I sees 'em." In case you idiots don't know, it's called journalism. We can argue all day about right and wrong, and terrorist intercept programs, and Pac-10 referees and onside kick rules, but where exactly where is that going to leave you and I and me? Nowhere, that's where, so let's agree to call this one a "push" and move on to the next game. If nothing else, you should at least be happy that you finally came up with a temporary anti-terrorist program that, in retrospect, appears to have marginally passed muster with the lofty ethical standards of The New York Times.
I would also encourage the administration to learn the same lesson I and myself have learned from this controversy: admitting one's mistakes can be a cathartic and healing experience. In fact, depending on what the Times legal staff recommends, I may eventually admit this column was wrong.
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