The brass at The New York Times thinks its decision to hold a story about the White House's warrantless domestic spying program for more than a year is none of our business. So they're not talking.
And, not to put too fine a point on things, that's bullshit.
Gabriel Sherman at the New York Observer had a piece about it today, along with this quote from NYT Executive Editor Bill Killer:
“I’m not going to talk about the back story to the story,” Mr. Keller said by phone on Dec. 20. “Maybe another time and another subject.”
Read about it. Read about how Keller and Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and Washington Bureau Chief Phil Taubman were summoned to the Oval Office on Dec. 6 by a president who didn't want them to publish the story. They published it anyway -- bully for them -- but this begs a serious question: If the story was so significant that three executives from the Times were willing to buck the most powerful man on the planet to print it this month, then why didn't they publish it much, much earlier?
As in before the 2004 election. That much earlier.
According to the NYO piece, reporter James Risen was prepared to write the story 14 months ago. When Risen's attempts to get the story approved were unsuccessful, he went on book leave "and his piece was shelved and regarded as dead, according to a Times source," Sherman said.
Was the Times forced to publish the story by the upcoming January release of Risen's book? Was it motivated by partisan bias (a popuar charge) to publish right before a key congressional vote on renewing The Patriot Act? Were there substantial holes in Risen's original reporting? Was it delayed by lawyers? Or by government influence? What issues were in play on this story behind closed doors at the Times?
But Keller, Sulzberger, Taubman, Risen, a second reporter assigned to the story and Managing Editor Jill Abramson have all since declined to comment. The wagons at the Times are circled.
It's all so very Old School. The adults got together behind closed doors and decided what they were going to do and say, and now all we get is the party line. To both the White House and the Times, it seems, the rest of us are children. Their message to us? You can't handle the truth.
The Times owes us an explanation, today. Not some other day, not some other subject, not whenever it suits Keller. Now. Come out and write a candid description of what went into this agonizingly slow decision, let us see behind the curtain and judge the credibility and motivation of all parties on our own. That's New School.
I've been a part of these newsroom battles, and they're ugly. Candor about who said what and why is painful, awkward and potentially career-threatening. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
Did these people learn nothing from the Judith Miller disaster? Apparently not.
18:43 Update: A far better account of the story-behind-the-story at the NYT, written by reporter James Rainey, was published yesterday in The Los Angeles Times. Excerpt:
In a statement over the weekend, Keller said the paper printed the story after more reporting, which uncovered additional "concerns and misgivings" about the surveillance and also persuaded Times editors that they could proceed and "not expose any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record."
The initial Times statements did not say that the paper's internal debate began before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election — in which Iraq and national security questions loomed large — or make any reference to Risen's book, due out Jan. 16.
But two journalists, who declined to be identified, said that editors at the paper were actively considering running the story about the wiretaps before Bush's November showdown with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.Dec. 22 Update: Here's Evan Dirkacz blogging the topic at Alternet.
Top editors at the paper eventually decided to hold the story. But the discussion was renewed after the election, with Risen and coauthor of the story, reporter Eric Lichtblau, joining some of the paper's editors in pushing for publication, according to the sources, who said they did not want to be identified because the Times had designated only Keller and a spokeswoman to address the matter.