Accuracy in Media

The Justice Department has launched an investigation into how the New York Times illegally obtained classified information about the NSA spying program. But questions still persist about the timing of the publication of the story. The paper held it for a year. Was it timed to boost sales of a book by the Times reporter who co-authored the story? New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame calls the paper’s explanations of its delay in publishing the NSA story “woefully inadequate” and admits that he has had “unusual difficulty” getting answers.

The Drudge Report was first to report that New York Times reporter James Risen, the co-author of the original article on NSA eavesdropping on Al Qaeda in America, included that information in his book, which was released on January 3rd.

The left is mad-and Calame seems to share this concern-that the Times didn’t break the story before the 2004 presidential election, when it might have helped John Kerry win the White House. But critics on the right suggest that the article was timed to help Risen’s book sales, take positive news about the elections in Iraq off the front pages, or jeopardize passage of the Patriot Act. The article appeared the day after the elections and the very morning that the Senate was scheduled to vote on the extension of the Patriot Act. Two Senators said the story influenced their vote against the legislation. 

Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told the Los Angeles Times that none of that had anything to do with the release of the story: “The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim’s forthcoming book or any other event. We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the Administration’s objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”

The New York Observer reports that with the publication of Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which includes the story of the NSA surveillance program, the Times was “in the position of having to resolve The Times‘ dispute with the administration before Mr. Risen could moot their legal and ethical concerns?and scoop his own paper.”

The Times and the rest of the media would rather not talk about whether the paper played politics with this story-and whether its publication was itself a violation of the law. Instead, the charge we are constantly hearing is that President Bush violated the law by authorizing the program and he could be impeached for it. What does the public think? A Rasmussen poll indicates that 64% of Americans, including 51% of Democrats, believe he is right to continue the spying program.

The President is standing by his decision and seems to be saying that if the Congress disagrees, it can investigate or even impeach him.

But will they? A Republican Congress won’t do so. But what if the Democrats retake the House or Senate?

Some centrist Democrats are very concerned about how the politics of this matter play out. According to a recent Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) memo, “In shaping alternative policies?particularly on national security, terrorism and Iraq?Democrats have to be extremely careful to avoid reinforcing the negative stereotype that has cost us so much in the last two national elections.”

Our concern all along has been that such a spying program should focus on the enemy, not the innocent.

At this point, for example, the FBI still has not solved the post-9/11 anthrax attacks. An innocent man, former government scientist Steven Hatfill, has been hounded by the government as a “person of interest” in the case, even though there is absolutely no evidence that he was implicated in any way.

Rather than go back and forth with the politics of impeachment, it would be wise for the media to focus on a concrete case of abuse of government power like that in the case of Steven Hatfill.

But the media do not want to cover that story. Why? Because the media were used by federal agents in the FBI to smear this innocent man. Some media personalities, such as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, have been sued by Hatfill for defaming him.

We don’t exactly know why the Times published its NSA story the day it did. But we do know that the Times, despite its reputation as a liberal paper, has no sympathy for at least one innocent victim of government surveillance.

This is a matter that Times ombudsman Calame should take up.

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