Sunday, November 28, 2010

How The New York Times Weighs Competing Self-Interests, Including Its Own

On Sunday, November 28th, 2010, the New York Times as well as a number of other major news media outlets agreed to release the contents of 250,000 US diplomatic cables made available to them by the WikiLeaks organization.

The New York Times will be releasing their analysis of these cables in parts over time. Before doing so, they issued a "Note to Readers" regarding their decision to publish and write about some of the diplomatic documents.

It would be instructive to examine the reasoning contained therein to get a better understanding of the role of the members of the "free press" in a country like America, actual as well as the way these members perceive themselves, as well as to gain some insight into an institution like the New York Times' effort to maintain objectivity in their news coverage and analysis. The results may be startling for the deluded who strongly believe that groups like the New York Times are members of an objective, unencumbered and free press.

The NYT:
The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times’s redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.
It is clear from this first paragraph that the employees of the NYT see for themselves a special role and responsibility within society. It is not my intent, at least at the moment, to question this perception but rather to elaborate on it.

The NYT was granted access to an unredacted collection of the cables. In so doing, they were one of the first groups outside of the original government creators and users of these documents to have a completely unfiltered view of them. Now that they have had access, they have made some of their own redactions and have shared the redactions with other news organizations (as well as WikiLeaks) in hopes that they might be sensitive to disclosing anything with might "endanger confidential informants or compromise national security."

To be employed by the NYT, so far as I know, one does not need to go through any government security clearances or government background checks similar to what one might have to go through if one were to be employed by the US diplomatic corps or other high-level government bureaucracies. As it stands, NYT employees are no "better", more loyal, honest or of necessarily sounder judgment about any issue or topic, than anyone else outside the government (note-- I am not implying the government's employees are, I am making a comparison only amongst non-governmental employees for a reason). Nonetheless, they have arrogated for themselves such a "gatekeeper" role as if they do naturally posses more loyalty, honesty, sounder judgment, etc., simply by virtue of the fact that they are members of the media.

Furthermore, their judgment of what constitutes information that might "endanger confidential informants or compromise national security" is based off of... their judgment. They are implicitly asking for a lot of trust and authority in this situation. They are expecting their readers and the general public to assume that, without having the ability to consider such items of information for themselves, they can trust that the employees of the NYT would come to the same conclusions as they would about which items constitute imminent dangers to confidential informants and/or national security.

Finally, the term "national security" is by itself an arbitrary and nonsensical concept. A nation does not exist. Individuals exist. A nation is a figure of speech used to refer to a social aggregate composed of particular individuals within a particular set of boundaries, laboring under a particular political system and sharing a particular set of other arbitrarily defined commonalities such as language, culture, ethnic background, ideals, etc. Individuals have interests and subjective perceptions of what constitutes a threat or a protection of their personal security. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all "national security" which represents every individual within a "nation".

Therefore, the NYT's concern with protecting and censoring any information which could harm "national security" is again another way of saying they have complete, arbitrary power to use their own judgment in disclosing information or not disclosing information according to their subjective interpretation of how this might harm whatever they presume to be the interests of "national security".

The NYT:
After its own redactions, The Times sent Obama administration officials the cables it planned to post and invited them to challenge publication of any information that, in the official view, would harm the national interest. After reviewing the cables, the officials — while making clear they condemn the publication of secret material — suggested additional redactions. The Times agreed to some, but not all. The Times is forwarding the administration’s concerns to other news organizations and, at the suggestion of the State Department, to WikiLeaks itself.
In the interests of not being repetitive, I will not labor to explain in full detail why the idea of a "national interest" is a flawed one. Please review the paragraphs above on "national security" for a comparable analysis.

This next disclosure from the NYT is again worthy of comment and I want to again stress that my interest is simply in drawing obvious conclusions from a set of observations, not to offer any specific judgment at this time about whether those conclusions represent "good" or "bad" things.

The idea of a "free" and "objective" press connotes the following ideas: that the press is able to offer an objective view of the simple facts of news events (what people said, what people did, when the events took place, what events transpired leading up to these events which may have been related, where the events took place) without coloring or distorting the reportage with subjective opinions and/or biases; that the press is able to make these observations and comment on events without feeling any pressure or compulsion from third parties to present the news in a particular way (aka "stylizing the facts" or "spinning the news"); that the press is a watchful, skeptical and if necessary, antagonistic surveyor of those it covers, especially the political system and its participants, in the interests of providing the public with the information they need to make sound judgments about their government and its doing; that the press does not engage in censorship or self-censorship in order to appease pressure groups and political agents, outside of specific, limited circumstances whereby a particular individual may suffer physical or intense emotional harm if various details are disclosed (for example, when the press covers crimes involving a minor, sexual crimes or the claims of whistle-blowers who may be retaliated against if their identity is made known).

For good or for bad, neither the NYT nor any other media group may consider itself a member of the objective, free press when it not only censors its coverage in the name of protecting "national security" and "national interests", but also offers its planned reportage to political officials for review and final approval. it may not consider itself a member of the objective, free press when the NYT adopts further redactions and censorship requested by those political officials at the conclusion of the review when those redactions and censorship did not seem appropriate to the NYT according to its own "independent" judgment before it was offered for review.

The NYT:
The question of dealing with classified information is rarely easy, and never to be taken lightly. Editors try to balance the value of the material to public understanding against potential dangers to the national interest. As a general rule we withhold secret information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that might be useful to adversaries in war. We excise material that might lead terrorists to unsecured weapons material, compromise intelligence-gathering programs aimed at hostile countries, or disclose information about the capabilities of American weapons that could be helpful to an enemy.
For good or for bad, this paragraph conclusively demonstrates that the NYT has thrown its lot in with the US government. The NYT clearly sees for itself a need to be "patriotic". It is not an "independent news agency"; it is an "American news agency" along with all that entails in contrast to the idea of an independent, allegiance-less news agency.

This policy, as stated, opens up a can of worms, again, for good or for bad. There are all kinds of potential decisions the NYT might make about disclosing or not disclosing information according to this policy which many might find controversial: the NYT may neglect to disclose instances of torture by US agents for fear that this intelligence could be a useful recruiting tool for designated adversaries of the US; the NYT may neglect to disclose knowledge of intelligence operations which involve direct violations of the law or involve other unscrupulous or immoral activities because doing so might undermine the US governments ability to develop intelligence on "hostile countries"; the NYT might neglect to expose known weaknesses or defects in American weapons capabilities which put the lives of American military personnel at risk, or pose potential harm to innocents who may be exposed to such weapons and their defects, because the NYT is concerned about protecting such information from those deemed by the US government to be its enemies.

In adopting such a policy, the NYT is putting itself in the position of playing god and potentially weighing human lives against one another. The NYT is putting itself into a position where it will have to make a decision concerning the "balance" of what might potentially be lost in terms of individual lives or wealth versus what might potentially be gained for US political interests in protecting some of its knowledge.

Additionally, in adopting such a policy the NYT, by implication, accepts the characterization of US political interests of its adversaries and accepts their judgments of such threats as sound. In other words, the NYT puts itself in a position whereby it loses its ability to independently judge for itself whether the classification of various individuals and entities as "enemies" by US government officials is justified and instead adopts these judgments as its own in making considerations about what information can be disclosed or must be redacted and kept from the public.

The potential for abuse is, again, obvious. Should resistance be merited in any given situation, it will be difficult if not impossible to generate such resistance when primary producers of news information such as the NYT have become essentially PR tools for disseminating the viewpoint and perspective of political interests as if these are objective facts without dispute.

The NYT:
As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.
For a truly free and objective press, this task should prove no more daunting than it would be for any other normal, independent individual to overcome the objections of any government officials on any topic whatsoever.

The fact the NYT views this responsibility as "daunting" is, again, telling. Part of the NYT's business model relies upon receiving its own special, high-profile "leaks" from government officials and political interests, along with its normal, everyday public access to less secret or mysterious sources. In seeking to protect its business model, the NYT must often choose between offending a potential source and losing the ability to be the recipient of success "access patronage" in the future, or to protect the interests of the source by agreeing to not make disclosures or engage in coverage that the source deems to be harmful to it.

In these situations, the NYT is making determinations about what best serves it, not what best serves "the public".

The NYT may feel torn about possibly affronting some of its sources in choosing whether or not to disclose information related to the diplomatic cable leaks. But for it to not even think twice about "redacting" this obvious bit of self-interest in making its policy explanation to its readers is at best a glaring oversight and at worst an outright act of fraud and deception.


  1. "A nation does not exist"?

    Therefore, your body does not exist. Only the atoms that... mmmh... how to say? Well, I can't say because only the atoms exist, not your body... ;-)

    The word 'nation' comes from the Latin 'nascor'. Its nearest translation in English is "to be born".

  2. Anon,

    Great work. So I suppose atoms have "feelings", atoms "get sick", atoms "get married." Or maybe they don't, and the protons, electrons and neutrons do. Or maybe they don't and the quarks and anti-matter particles do...

    Thank you for taking my point, which is valid, and trying to twist it with an infinite regression absurdity.

    Do tell, for those of us who aren't as clever with language as you, how the "interest" of a nation is determined if it does in fact "exist"? Be sure to not engage in explanations which result in denial of your own terms, as you might if you were to rest your argument on some concept like democratic outcomes (ie, the national interest is the one the majority of the people support... so then, the minority is, what, not part of the nation?)

    Good luck!