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Have American Newspapers Been Responsible in Their Coverage of the 'War on Terror'?

Discussants: Alex Jones, and Quin Hillyer
Updated: July 17, 2006

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On June 23, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all published articles about a previously secret Bush administration program to monitor financial records as part of the war on terrorism. The New York Times in particular has received harsh criticism from administration officials and some media outlets who say the newspaper has compromised national security. This is not the first time a newspaper has been accused of divulging sensitive information on national security, which raises the question: Have American newspapers been responsible in their coverage of the 'war on terror'?

Discussing this issue are Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, and Quin Hillyer, executive editor of The American Spectator.

Weigh in on this debate by emailing the editors at CFR.org. To view other online debates click here.


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Quin Hillyer

July 17, 2006

Oh, where to begin? For anybody with eyes to read and an open mind, it is simply laughable to deny that “the Times has been the enemy of the war from the start.” Volumes could be written to show the anti-war, anti-administration biases of the news pages of the New York Times. Unfortunately, as the Times goes, so go many other papers, for the simple reason that many papers get all their international stories from the Times’ news service.

As for the claim that “the facts on the ground have been pretty devastating,” only somebody who takes the Times as gospel would believe the “facts” are so discouraging. Again and again, I’ve read accounts of American servicemen who say the situation in Iraq is better than the Times reports. I’ve spoken to congressmen of both parties and reporters who, having spent plenty of time there, say the same.

As for the NSA “eavesdropping on Americans without first getting warrants,” Mr. Jones’ very characterization of that program is tendentious. Try “data-mining of international calls to trace phone connections only with suspected terrorists,” and then we can talk about whether it should have been reported. The same objections raised to the SWIFT program apply to the data mining: Lives are at risk. To date, I am not aware of a single actual abuse of the data mining program; instead, we are treated to vague allegations that somehow, some way, a program where computers analyze phone numbers might be misused so that some NSA spook might listen to Aunt Sally gossip about Cousin Betty.

Mr. Jones writes: “There are inspiring stories from Iraq, of sacrifice and bravery by American soldiers and astonishing courage by Iraqis. These, too, appear in newspapers.” Not very often. For every story about sacrifice and bravery, newspapers run dozens of stories of despair.

Here’s the acid test of the bias of national news outlets: How many stories have they published that are damaging to our enemies? Obviously, they repeatedly publish stories detrimental to allied efforts. If the Times spent half as much investigative effort trying to unearth evidence of, say, stateside groups that cooperate with terrorists as it does in trying to prove the Bush administration’s evils, then maybe it could claim to be an unbiased, and thus responsible, news outlet. We still await the day when the Times runs a banner headline about how some mosque in Anytown, USA launders money for al-Qaeda.


Alex Jones

July 15, 2006

It was my understanding that the point at issue was whether newspapers have behaved responsibly in their reporting of the war on terror. Mr. Hillyer seems determined to let this rest entirely on whether the Times should have reported on SWIFT. While sincere people can disagree on the SWIFT articles, to base judgment of newspaper coverage on that one decision is a ploy right out of Thank You For Smoking.

Some of you may not had the pleasure of reading Christopher Buckley’s hilarious book, or seen the equally hilarious movie. It is the story of the top public relations man for the smoking industry, who is dazzlingly artful in his rhetorical sleight of hand. One tried-and-true gimmick is to take one thing—such as the Times’ decision to publish information about SWIFT—and use it in the name of righteous indignation to discredit everything the Times has reported.

It is simply false that the Times has been the enemy of the war from the start. But it is true that the Times and most of the rest of the media were not nearly as rigorous as they should have been in questioning the evidence used to justify the invasion. And it is also true that, after the initial invasion, the facts on the ground have been pretty devastating. There have been moments of hope, such as the election, and these have been covered appropriately. But the reality, to any but those who will not see, is one of much error and frustration.

Mr. Hillyer has not mentioned the other revelation made by the Times that incensed the Bush Administration and prompted similar cries of outrage from those who seem to want the President to have no accountability. Against the President’s wishes, the Times published the “secret” that the NSA was eavesdropping on Americans without first getting warrants, as required by Congress. Was that also a piece of irresponsible reporting? I think not, and many Americans—including Republicans in Congress—seem to agree. Was it irresponsible for the press to report about torture by Americans? Was it wrong of the Washington Post to tell us about secret prisons?

There are inspiring stories from Iraq, of sacrifice and bravery by American soldiers and astonishing courage by Iraqis. These, too, appear in newspapers. But unless we want to cover our eyes and say collectively, “I don’t want to know,” then we should be grateful that the nation’s great newspapers are still trying to do the job we count on them to do.


Quin Hillyer

July 14, 2006

Alex misses the point entirely. My point was that a paper that so clearly, from Day One, was openly hostile to everything about the war effort has a special obligation to ensure that its own biases are not at work when it exercises its supposedly independent judgment in a national security case—a story which, key members of both parties told the New York Times, could seriously harm an effective, perfectly legal, ongoing program that keeps terrorists from committing mass murder.

Two decades ago I was privileged to be a research assistant for Stephen Klaidman, a long-respected journalist for the Washington Post and New York Times, and Georgetown University Philosophy Professor Tom Beauchamp, for a widely praised book called The Virtuous Journalist. In it, they discussed at length a journalist’s obligation to avoid unnecessary harm—among their examples of when journalists did far more harm than good, two were almost directly analogous to the Times’ disclosure of the SWIFT banking intelligence program.

In one, columnist Jack Anderson disclosed the existence of “an electronic intelligence-gathering operation code-named Gamma Guppy that allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on telephone conversations between Soviet leaders.” Wrote Klaidman and Beauchamp: “We are convinced that both the publication and the leak were gratuitous and that they contributed to blowing, if not the best, then at least a good source of intelligence.”

Likewise, they noted Washington Post chairman Katharine Graham’s tale of how two news outlets reported that the U.S. government had intercepted coded radio traffic among terrorists after sixty people died in a bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Said Graham: “Shortly thereafter, the traffic ceased. This undermined efforts to capture the terrorist leaders and eliminated a source of information about future attacks. Five months later, apparently the same terrorist leaders struck the Marine barracks in Beirut; 241 servicemen were killed.”

Again, Klaidman and Beauchamp criticized the ethics of publishing the intelligence information. For years, The Virtuous Journalist was a top text used in journalism-school classes across the nation. If its standards had been applied by the New York Times this year, the SWIFT story (and possibly others) would not have been published. When lives may be at stake, journalists have a far higher ethical hurdle to jump when deciding whether the benefits of publication outweigh the risks.

The congressional testimony of Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey earlier this week squarely outlines those risks:

“For two years, I have been reviewing [reports from the SWIFT program] every morning. I cannot remember a day when that briefing did not include at least one terrorism lead from this program… This disclosure compromised one of our most valuable programs and will only make our efforts to track terrorist financing—and to prevent terrorist attacks—harder.”

Absent truly compelling public benefits, the Times’ decision to report the story was unconscionable.


Alex Jones

July 13, 2006

There is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to characterizing the American experience in Iraq as a “rousing success.”  To brand the New York Times’ coverage as terminally flawed because of predictions that the invasion might turn into a quagmire is to denounce the paper for reporting the uncomfortable—and to some unwelcome—truth.

After the initial military victory in Iraq—when President Bush declared his ill-conceived “mission accomplished”—the Times and other newspapers abandoned their pre-invasion credulity. Until that time, President Bush had been widely believed. But the evidence is now overwhelming that the administration cooked the books in terms of the intelligence that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The story changed when the Times and other news organizations got the chance to actually report on the ground, rather than simply take the carefully selected information spooned out by the Bush administration. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was little or no planning beyond the invasion itself. The Iraqi people were torn by sectarian strife. Saddam’s army was morphing into murderous bands capable of killing our soldiers by the scores and their fellow Iraqis by the hundreds. The oil did not flow. Peace did not come. Any but the most blinkered observer would say that Iraq today is far closer to a quagmire than a “rousing success.”

But those who do not want to know unhappy truth don’t have to. Instead, they can denounce the Times and other news organizations for their “unambiguous hostility to the war effort,” and dismiss all unpleasant information as the bias of America-haters. They have tried to brand critics of the war as traitors, and revelations such as the torture of Iraqi prisoners and domestic eavesdropping without warrants as unpatriotic. This has been good politics, and bashing the press—especially the Times—is a reliable crowd pleaser.  

The president should still be listened to with care when he claims that secrets are at risk. But if anyone’s credibility is in doubt, it is the president’s and that of his unquestioning supporters who only see bias when inconvenient news is reported. 

What we should fear is that the orchestrated, venomous, and irresponsible campaign to discredit the Times will intimidate the paper and chill the willingness of other news organizations to keep reporting those unpleasant truths. We can only hope that an independent press will continue to do its vital, albeit unpopular, job.


Quin Hillyer

July 12, 2006

Independent judgment is one thing. A clear and unambiguous hostility to the war effort, from the news pages as well as editorial pages, is another. The New York Times has so relentlessly used its supposedly straight news pages to paint the war in the worst possible light that it can no longer reasonably claim to be exercising independent news judgment: It is an anti-Bush campaign organ, pure and simple. As a partisan in the debate, it has a special duty to bend over backwards to ensure that its own “judgment” about what secrets are “vital” or not, and what would be “damaging” or not, are not colored by its active campaigning against this president and this war.

I won’t belabor analyses that have shown the Times' reporting on Iraq to be so one-sided as to lose all semblance of neutrality. I did my own analysis on its coverage of the drive to Baghdad in 2003, and it was an eye opener. In one stretch, beginning just five days after the allied operation began, the Times editorialized four days in a row with downbeat assessments about the likely success of the mission. In one day’s news stories alone (March 25, 2003), eight of the first nine completed stories concerning the war ended on strikingly ominous notes.  

Of course, all of the poor-mouthing was wrong. The drive to Baghdad did not turn into a quagmire, but was a rousing success at overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

So having shown little understanding of the subject, while showing an open hostility not only to the president and the war effort but almost to the very idea of victory, the Times now claims the ability to judge how important, effective, and vulnerable the classified operations are. That’s rich.

Meanwhile, I am not the first to point out that the Times’ own internal logic about its decision is, well, utterly illogical. First it claimed, again and again in the most recent story in question, that the program was top secret and reporting its existence was a scoop of the largest magnitude. Then it turned around and argued the story isn’t damaging to national security because, after all, the terrorists all knew anyway that the United States was tracking international banking transactions. Well, was it secret or not? Is it a big scoop or ho-hum? It can’t be both.

When even leading Democrats in Congress, among them serious war critics, can’t be found to defend the Times’ decision to report the SWIFT banking operation, and when several top Bush critics actually lobbied the Times, pre-publication, that the story would do real harm, those facts alone say that the damage to national security was grievous and indefensible. The program was indeed secret, and it was a big scoop—the type of scoop that gets innocent people killed and that good news judgment would insist upon not publishing.


Alex Jones

July 11, 2006

Most reporting on serious topics is done by newspapers, and especially by a handful of the best newspapers including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. It is these newspapers that have been denounced by the Bush Administration and it is their behavior that is largely in question.

What constitutes responsible reporting in such a situation as the 'war on terror'? Only the most extreme critics would define that as never publishing anything the government does not want known. That is the Soviet and Chinese model and clearly not in the public interest.

If we accept the fact that it is appropriate for some secret or classified information to be published, what would be the responsible way to do so? You would start with careful, rigorous reporting by reporters who have expertise in the field. As an editor, you would demand they prove that their reporting is accurate and compelling. If the sources of the information cannot be identified in the article, the editors should insist on knowing who they are, what their motives seem to be, and why their information should be trusted. If the issue is one that seems likely to touch on national security, before publishing it you should notify the government officials involved and give them a chance to make their case for why some or all of the information should not be published. You should listen to the government’s argument carefully. You should delay publication if need be. You should leave out details you believe could be damaging. In some cases, you should not publish at all.

The point is that you should give the government a solid opportunity to tell you why not. Ultimately, you should decide to publish if you come to believe the information is accurate, vital secrets are not exposed, and the information is important for the public to know. In each of the recent cases in which the government has denounced the press for divulging secrets, all these steps have been taken. In most of the stories, information was left out because of the government’s argument. In some other cases, the story did not appear at all. In each case, newspapers have behaved responsibly, both in their role as citizens and as watchdogs of government. Surrendering their independent judgment would have been the irresponsible choice and a failure to do their duty.