“The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government.... The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people.”
—‑U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, New York Times Co. v. United States (6/30/71)
Journalism is supposed to hold power to account. That’s the principle implicit in the U.S. Constitution’s singling out a free press for protection.
If that principle were respected, the Washington Post’s admission (2/6/13) that it and “several news organizations” made a deal with the White House to withhold the news that the U.S. has a drone base in Saudi Arabia would have been a red flag, triggering widespread discussion of media ethics.
But these deals have become so commonplace that the story generated less concern among journalists than did the denial of press access to a recent presidential golf outing. The latter outrage resulted in a sternly worded letter of protest from the White House press corps (Huffington Post, 2/18/13).
As the Washington Post explained, it was convinced to sit on the drone base story by administration concerns that
exposing the facility would undermine operations against an Al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counter-terrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership has historically had close ties to the Saudi elite (Wall Street Journal, 3/18/03)—so the existence of the drone base was likely no secret to them. As for the Saudis, they might well be less willing to collaborate with the U.S. if their collaboration became public knowledge. But is protecting governments from the impact of public opinion really the job of journalism?
Withholding important news over supposed national security concerns is nothing new. And in many cases, no official request is even needed—the decision-makers seem to have internalized the notion that keeping the government’s secrets is part of their job.
New York Times reporter William Laurence, who covered the nuclear attacks on Japanese civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, was a shameless cheerleader for the Bomb. According to journalist Greg Mitchell’s book Atomic Cover Up, Laurence worked eagerly to suppress news of the lingering radiation effects of the attacks. Mitchell quoted Laurence’s frank account of a propaganda junket in which the Times reporter and 30 other journalists were given a military briefing in order that they could, in Laurence’s words, “give lie to” Japanese propaganda “that radiations were responsible for deaths even after” the nuclear attacks.
During the U.S. senatorial Church hearings in 1975–76, the CIA admitted having 400 journalists on its payroll and regularly planting columns and news stories in some of the nation’s most prestigious news outlets—as detailed in Carl Bernstein’s landmark piece “The CIA and the Media” (Rolling Stone, 10/20/77).
Reporting on the 1953 CIA coup that ousted Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, U.S. journalists—not all of them on the Agency’s payroll—concealed the CIA role in the coup. As New York Times reporter James Risen (4/15/00) wrote almost 50 years after it might have made a difference:
Western correspondents in Iran and Washington never reported that some of the unrest had been stage-managed by CIA agents posing as Communists. And they gave little emphasis to accurate contemporaneous reports in Iranian newspapers and on the Moscow radio asserting that Western powers were secretly arranging the Shah’s return to power.
In 1954, the following year, there was a conspiracy of media silence over the CIA’s role in a coup that removed Guatemala’s popularly elected President Jacobo Arbenz. In a mea culpa more than 40 years later, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger (6/7/97) admitted complying with a request by CIA director John Foster Dulles to cover up the Agency’s role. Sulzberger kept Times Latin American correspondent Sydney Gruson out of Guatemala to ensure the blackout. As Robert Parry (Consortium News, 6/30/97) summed it up:
In the days before the coup, Dulles personally appealed to Sulzberger, and the Times publisher obliged the CIA. “I telephoned Allen Dulles and told him that we would keep Gruson in Mexico City,” Sulzberger stated in a dictated memorandum.
From the beginning of the Cold War, media officials like Washington Post publisher Phil Graham worked closely with the CIA in a spirit expressed succinctly by Graham’s successor, his wife Katharine Graham, who told an audience of top CIA officials in a November 16, 1988, speech (Regardie’s, 1/90; cited in Extra!, 1–2/90):
We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things that the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legiti-mate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.
It’s hard to know how often journalists sit on stories for reasons of state, or how many official requests are made. Since the arrangements are meant to be kept secret, we can safely assume they are more common than we know. But in the past decade, evidence of them seems to have emerged at an accelerated rate.
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In December 2005, the Times (12/16/05) admitted delaying a story about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping in a program that defied federal law by using wiretaps domestically without judicial review. But the admission itself was less than candid; as it later emerged, the story, an embarrass-ment to the Bush White House, had been withheld for more than a year, since before the 2004 presidential election.
CBS’s 60 Minutes did much the same with a story exposing the Bush admin-istration’s use of false documents to charge Iraq with trying to obtain uranium from Niger—holding the news until after the 2004 election (FAIR Action Alert, 11/28/04). CBS News officials (New York Times, 9/25/04) suggested they’d withheld the story for fear it could affect voters’ choices: “We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election.” The notion that journalism is supposed to inform the public in ways that may very well make a difference, particularly in the political realm, seemed lost on CBS officials.
In 2005, the Washington Post (11/2/05) sort of defied the government by publishing a story about the CIA holding secret prisoners at “black sites” in Eastern Europe (Extra! Update, 12/05). But the paper undercut reporter Dana Priest’s big scoop by withholding the names of the countries involved, as it explained, “at the request of senior U.S. officials,” who said that the “disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.”
The Post also postponed a 2009 Bob Woodward story (9/21/09) about a gloomy military report on the situation in Afghanistan. At the behest of the military, Woodward’s editors put off publication of the story for 24 hours, citing national security issues. But more importantly, before posting a copy of the report it had obtained online, the Post allowed the Army to intrude into its editing process by redacting the report’s text to its liking.
In one particularly instructive episode, the New York Times used a Wikileaks-provided State Department cable to bolster its continuing argument that Iran is expanding its offensive military capabilities (“Iran Fortifies Its Arsenal With the Aid of North Korea” 11/29/10):
Secret American intelligence assess-ments have concluded that Iran has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, based on a Russian design, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal, diplomatic cables show.
The Times’ evidence for the allegation was a Wikileaks cable about a high-level secret meeting between U.S. and Russian officials. But the story included this red flag: “At the request of the Obama administration, the New York Timeshas agreed not to publish the text of the cable.”
Fortunately, Wikileaks did publish the entire cable, which revealed, contrary to the impression given by the Times, that Russian officials were deeply skeptical of the U.S. allegations about the missiles—in part because there was no hard evidence that the North Korean missile even existed (FAIR Blog, 11/29/10).
The collusion between the media and government to keep news from the public is defended in virtually every case as a matter of “national security.” Putting aside for the moment that the public interest should be the overriding principle for journalists, it’s fair to ask if the defenders are even right on their narrower point. Has national security, not to mention peace and stability, been enhanced by the U.S. media covering up, say, the U.S. role in overthrowing democracies, or the dissembling of presidents, or dismissing the effects of radiation?
The short answer, according to the few forceful media critics who have weighed in, is no. In a strong column, New York Times ombud Margaret Sullivan (2/9/13) condemned the practice: “The real threat to national security is a government operating in secret and accountable to no one, with watchdogs that are too willing to muzzle themselves.” Sullivan was no less critical in specifically addressing the drone base story (2/6/13) withheld by her own employer:
Given the government’s undue secrecy about the drone program, which it has never officially acknowledged the existence of, and that program’s great significance to America’s foreign policy, its national security and its influence on the tumultuous Middle East, the Times ought to be reporting as much and as aggressively as possible on it.
Lehigh University journalism professor Jack Lule’s judgment (Guardian, 2/6/13) was even harsher. Lule called the decision not to publish “a shameful one,” adding:
The national security standard has to be very high, perhaps imminent danger. The fact that we are even having a conversation about whether it was a national security issue should have set alarm bells off to the editors. I think the real reason was that the administration did not want to embarrass the Saudis—and for the U.S. news media to be complicit in that is craven.
In his column about the drone base story, Glenn Greenwald (Guardian, 2/7/13) looked back over the last decade of blacked out stories, observing:
In each instance, what this media concealment actually accomplishes is enabling the dissemination of significant government falsehoods without challenge, and permitting the continuation of government deceit and even illegality.
Which is the opposite of what justice Black meant when he said that the press is protected so that it can “bare the secrets of the government and inform the people.”
This article appeared in the April 2013 edition of FAIR's publication Extra!.