Freedom of Press to Censure Government

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“The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government.... The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people.” —‑U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, New York Times Co. v. United States (6/30/71) Journalism is supposed to hold power to account. That’s the principle implicit in the U.S. Constitution’s singling out a free press for protection. If that principle were respected, the Washington Post’s admission (2/6/13) that it and “several news organizations” made a deal with the White House to withhold the news that the U.S. has a drone base in Saudi Arabia would have been a red flag, triggering widespread discussion of media ethics. But these deals have become so commonplace that the story generated less concern among journalists than did the denial of press access to a recent presidential golf outing. The latter outrage resulted in a sternly worded letter of protest from the White House press corps (Huffington Post, 2/18/13). As the Washington Post explained, it was convinced to sit on the drone base story by administration concerns that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an Al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counter-terrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda’s leadership has historically had close ties to the Saudi elite (Wall Street Journal, 3/18/03)—so the existence of the drone base was likely no secret to them. As for the Saudis, they might well be less willing to collaborate with the U.S. if their collaboration became public knowledge. But is protecting governments from the impact of public opinion really the job of journalism? Withholding important news over supposed national security concerns is nothing new. And in many cases, no official request is even needed—the decision-makers seem to have internalized the notion that keeping the government’s secrets is part of their job. New York Times reporter William Laurence, who covered the nuclear attacks on Japanese civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, was a shameless cheerleader for the Bomb. According to journalist Greg Mitchell’s book Atomic Cover Up, Laurence worked eagerly to suppress news of the lingering radiation effects of the attacks. Mitchell quoted Laurence’s frank account of a propaganda junket in which the Times reporter and 30 other journalists were given a military briefing in order that they could, in Laurence’s words, “give lie to” Japanese propaganda “that radiations were responsible for deaths even after” the nuclear attacks. During the U.S. senatorial Church hearings in 1975–76, the CIA admitted having 400 journalists on its payroll and regularly planting columns and news stories in some of the nation’s most prestigious news outlets—as detailed in Carl Bernstein’s landmark piece “The CIA and the Media” (Rolling Stone, 10/20/77). Reporting on the 1953 CIA coup that ousted Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, U.S. journalists—not all of them on the Agency’s payroll—concealed the CIA role in the coup. As New York Times reporter James Risen (4/15/00) wrote almost 50 years after it might have made a difference: Western correspondents in Iran and Washington never reported that some of the unrest had been stage-managed by CIA agents posing as Communists. And they gave little emphasis to accurate contemporaneous reports in Iranian newspapers and on the Moscow radio asserting that Western powers were secretly arranging the Shah’s return to power. In 1954, the following year, there was a conspiracy of media silence over the CIA’s role in a coup that removed Guatemala’s popularly elected President Jacobo Arbenz. In a mea culpa more than 40 years later, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger (6/7/97) admitted complying with a request by CIA...
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