After appearing on CNN last week and granting an interview with Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz (who naively pondered the ferocity of what he considered the unwarranted conservative assault on the New York Times), Times Executive Editor Bill Keller again goes to a sympathetic outlet, CBS’s Face the Nation hosted by liberal host Bob Schieffer. Keller again defended his paper by throwing dark hints of a conservative anti-Times conspiracy.
First, he makes a ludicrous version of the sort of "you never cover the good news” argument similar to the ones the media has mocked in the past when coming from conservatives, pointing out that many times in the past the Times hasn’t, in fact, compromised national security.
“I think this is about a lot more than just the banking story. I mean, since September 11th, editors have had to make some really, really tough choices about how we keep Americans informed about how their government is waging the war on terror. And there have been a lot of occasions where we have decided to withhold information. You don't hear about those. There have been some occasions where despite the pleas of the administration officials, we've gone ahead and published sensitive material after a long process of deliberation, and those tend to, you know, make officials angry.”
Keller talks like he was elected the executive of a nation, not a newspaper, when he explains how he judges whether a national security secret is worth exposing. The short answer is, give complete exposure the benefit of the doubt.
“I don't think the threshold test about whether you write about government waging the war on terror is whether they've done something that's blatantly illegal or outrageous. I think you probably would like to know what they're doing that's successful, as well. The question we start with is why would you not publish? And sometimes there's good reason.
“When lives are clearly at risk, we often hold back information. But this was a case where clearly the terrorists, or the people who finance terrorism, know quite well because the Treasury Department and the White House have talked openly about it, that they monitor international banking transactions. It's not news to the terrorists. The scope of the program and its evident successes and the questions about its oversight were news to voters and citizens.”
In Hugh Hewitt’s useful analogy from CNN’s Reliable Sources (Hat tip Noel Sheppard), “it's the difference between knowing that people are out to catch speeders in most cities and knowing where the speed traps and the radar and the cameras are.”
Schieffer asked: “You said that you always weigh the possibility of putting lives at risk and you generally would withhold information. Do you think any lives were put at risk? Because some are suggesting that they were by making this public?”
Keller made more excuses: “No. I don't, I don't think any lives were put at risk. You know, the government likes to have it both ways on these kinds of programs. They confide in us when they want to advertise the programs that are successful and then they rebuke us if we write about something that they would prefer we didn't write about. You know, it's interesting that Secretary of the Treasury John Snow, outgoing secretary, who rebuked us for writing the banking story, three years ago took a number of reporters, including one of ours, on a six-day tour of the Middle East, where they were given extensive briefings on sensitive details of how we monitor international financial transactions. They did that because they wanted us to write about their relentlessness in pursuit of terrorism and their successes. You know, so one man's breach of security is another man's public relations."
Asked if he regretted the story, Keller responded by casting criticism as a cynical conservative politics of intimidation, ignoring criticism of the Times’ irresponsibility from the 9-11 commission and other sources:
“I mean, you know, they're -- it's an election year, beating up on The New York Times is red meat for the conservative base. But, I mean, I don't think this is all politics, I think the administration's a little embarrassed. They -- this is the most secretive White House we've had since the Nixon White House, I think, by general acceptance, and I think they're a little embarrassed that they've had so much trouble holding on to their secrets. And making this kind of a clamor, I suspect, they hope will silence people who do talk to the press and maybe intimidate reporters.”
For more on this story and other examples of New York Times bias, visit Times Watch.