Sullivan questions Times’s secret-keeping for the government

Public Editor at the Times Margaret Sullivan published a piece today challenging the Times for having withheld information about the (no longer secret) drone base in Saudi Arabia:

the bigger and more troubling issue is whether the information should have been withheld to begin with. The reason offered — that naming the location would upset Saudi citizens to the point that the base might have to be closed, thus hampering America’s counterterrorism efforts — doesn’t cut it. Keeping the government’s secrets is not the news media’s role, unless there is a clear, direct and life-threatening reason to justify it. The classic example is revealing troop movements in wartime. Such a specific threat doesn’t exist now, and from all I can glean, it didn’t exist many months ago either.

This discussion couldn’t be more important, considering the context: the darkness in which America’s drone program has been operating and quickly growing.

In what a federal judge has described as an Alice in Wonderland situation, with a little Catch-22 added for good measure, the secrecy around the drone program is self-perpetuating. The government, until very recently, had not even acknowledged its existence, even though the unmanned aircraft have killed thousands of people in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan — tragically including many civilians, some of them children, and even some American citizens. The government prefers to describe the dead, sometimes inaccurately, as militants or terrorists.

I am glad to see Sullivan criticize the Times for having withheld this piece of information – though admittedly, I was slightly perturbed by her initial commendation of the Times for having revealed it when it did. It is certainly a good thing that the Times did finally choose to share this piece of information with the public, but the idea that the Times – and the Post and Associated Press – functions as the gatekeeper of state secrets is rather alarming. The media is supposed to be the fourth estate, not part of the state, and Sullivan is in the right for questioning this.

As Sullivan concludes: “The real threat to national security is a government operating in secret and accountable to no one, with watchdogs that are too willing to muzzle themselves.”

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has an excellent post that is extremely critical of the obsequious US media for keeping this information secret at the behest of its government:

As usual, the excuses for concealing this information are frivolous. Indeed, as the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade noted, “the location of several drone bases was published as long ago as September last year on at least one news website, as this item on the North America Inter Press Service illustrates.” Gawker’s Adrian Chen documents numerous other instances where the base had been publicly disclosed and writes:

“In the case of the Saudi drone base, the Times and the Post weren’t protecting a state secret: They were helping the CIA bury an inconvenient story. . . . The fact that the drone base was already reported renders the rationale behind the months-long blackout a farce.”

In an article on the controversy over this self-censorship, the Guardian this morning quotes Dr Jack Lule, a professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University:

“The decision not to publish is a shameful one. The national security standard has to be very high, perhaps imminent danger. The fact that we are even having a conversation about whether it was a national security issue should have sent alarm bells off to the editors. I think the real reason was that the administration did not want to embarrass the Saudis – and for the US news media to be complicit in that is craven.”

The same dynamic drives most of these acts of US media self-censorship. It has nothing to do with legitimate claims of national security. Indeed, none of these facts – once they were finally reported – ultimately resulted in any harm. Instead, it has everything to do with obeying government dictates; shielding high-level government officials from embarrassing revelations; protecting even the most extreme government deceit and illegality; and keeping the domestic population of the US (their readers) ignorant of the vital acts in which their own government is engaged [emphasis own].

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