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Good Journalism Isn't Treason

By Ben L. Kaufman · August 2nd, 2006 · Media, Myself & I
Others must explain whether it was a mistake to reveal how the Belgium-based SWIFT database is used to track suspected terrorist finances.

Meanwhile, The New York Times is accused of treason for its SWIFT story, albeit by Pavlovian GOP attack dogs who overlook the same story on the same day in The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times.

So maybe it's time to update Samuel Johnson's aphorism, "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels" to "National security is the last refuge of scoundrels." Despite the wingnuts' hue and cry for Timesmen's blood, consider this selective record:

· Bay of Pigs. The New York Times acceded to JFK's plea to kill pre-invasion stories. After the debacle, he reportedly complained to the Times that disaster would have been averted if paper had ignored him.

· Pentagon Papers. Despite failed censorship attempts, that history of how we got into the Vietnam war compromised only reputations.

· Tehran embassy. The Washington Post's Michael J. Berlin writes how in 1979 he and other journalists held the story that Canadians were sheltering some U.S. embassy employees. The story broke only after U.S. and Canadian governments gave the go-ahead.

· Warrantless NSA eavesdropping. The New York Times held that story for a year to hear and assess White House national security arguments.

· Secret prisons. The Washington Post deleted host countries at U.S. request.

· My Enquirer editor and I held a story describing a local immigrant as a police informer back home. His lawyer feared the man's family here might kill him if they knew. We were free to use the story when he was deported.

Damned if we do and damned if we don't. If the Right wing doesn't get you, the Left wing will.

It's no secret if you tell people that you spiked a story to protect national security, so I turn to history for more examples:

· PBS/WNET's series, America at War, recounts how CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and his wife Janet dined at the White House on Dec. 7, 1941. There had been sketchy reports that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Around 10:30, an enraged FDR "summoned Murrow to his study and ... began to reel off the losses at Pearl Harbor: the destroyed ships, the downed planes, the staggering numbers of dead and wounded.

"The phrase 'off the record' was never spoken. 'I've got the greatest story of my life,' Murrow told his wife. 'And I don't know if I should go with it or forget it.'

"The President told him ... how America was in grave danger while the Pacific fleet was out of action and Murrow ... didn't write a word. He felt it would have been unpatriotic and would have endangered the outcome of the war to have done so."

· A Chicago Tribune story nearly created a strategic disaster. The U.S. Navy surprised and mauled the Japanese fleet at Midway in June 1942. That was the turning point in the Pacific war. Soon after, the paper reported American admirals had known Japanese Navy plans, strength, and dispositions. Had the Japanese read the Chicago Trib, they'd have inferred that Americans had cracked their code. Aides dissuaded Roosevelt from sending Marines to occupy Tribune Tower or prosecuting the reporter, editors and FDR-hating publisher because that would attract Japanese attention to the code-breaking.

· As general, Eisenhower remains the model of the credible authority whose trust war correspondents reciprocated. The Allies were beating the Germans in North Africa, and everyone speculated where the 1943 Allied assault would be. In his memoir, Crusade in Europe, Ike says, "Because of the confidence I had acquired in the integrity of the newsmen in my theater, I decided to take them into my confidence." When he told them it would be Sicily, "Mouths fell open."

Reporters didn't even tell their editors. "From that moment ... nothing speculative came out of the theater and no representative of the press attempted to send out anything that could possibly be of any value to the enemy. After the operation was completed many correspondents told me of the fear they felt that they might be guilty of even inadvertent revelation of the secret."

Ike says he took the risk "paradoxically, to maintain secrecy. ... During periods of combat inactivity, reporters have a habit of filling up their stories with speculation and since, after some months of experience in a war theater, any newsman acquires considerable skill in interpreting coming events, the danger was increased that soon the enemy would have our plans almost in detail."

· · ·

Curmudgeon notes
· Don't you love fireworks ads after broadcasters report fireworks injuries?

· Will reporters shift to "beanbag" after looking up "cornhole"? Or substitute accurate "body armor" for "bullet proof vests" that aren't?

· Google Santa Barbara News-Press. Debacle suggests the wrong local owner can be worse than a chain.

· The Enquirer wisely calls on Cincinnatians to treat gun violence as a public health problem. Curmudgeon urged that in April 2005.

· In case you missed our correction on Aug. 12, Chicago Sun-Times writer Greg Couch quoted White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's verbal abuse; he wasn't its target. Blame miscommunication between Curmudgeon and editor.

· Business Courier says proposed Macmillan Park development along Calhoun Street could tank and might take UC Foundation money with it. With its publisher sitting on UC board, Enquirer should have had that story.

· The New York Times beat locals on P&G dropping high-fashion clothing line. Enquirer carried Times story a day later. Post used a local AP story -- late.

· News media seem to have trouble connecting Beirut evacuation and New Orleans dots. "Bushie, you're doing a heckuva job."

· New contest headline for Little Gem News Service comes from CiN Weekly: "Smelling like a butt is never a good thing." Send a brief mock news story that plays off that headline to mediacritic@citybeat.com. I'll run the winner next month.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.


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