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Correcting Where It Counts

The New York Times is exquisitely sensitive to the possibility that its reporters could have conflicts of interest, or undisclosed angles on the stories they report. When such possible conficts are sniffed out, the Times takes a rigorous, Caesar’s wife approach. As in this morning’s Corrections section:

An article last week in Sunday Styles described a rising generation of male socialites — men whose lives revolve around attending parties in the public eye. The group included a fashion company vice president for public relations whom the article’s author, a freelance writer, dated for a few months, in a relationship that ended early this year. In view of that background, the example should have been omitted, or at a minimum the article should have acknowledged the relationship.

Now, that’s what I call sensitive! The Times ran an article on an utterly trivial subject: a “rising generation of male socialites” who apparently have nothing better to do than “attending parties in the public eye.” (Which, for most of us, would be a form of torture.) The Times finds a reporter to write a story on this less-than-earthshaking topic; not surprisingly, he is someone who is familiar with the world of New York parties. He profiles several members of this “rising generation of male socialites” for the Times. There is no suggestion that he wrote anything that was unfair or inaccurate, but it turns out that one of the men referred to used in his story is someone he knows, and in fact briefly dated!

Now, if a political reporter at the Times were covering a Senate campaign, for example, and it turned out that he had dated one of the candidates, the Times’ concern would be appropriate. He certainly shouldn’t be covering the race. But, with all due respect to the “rising generation of male socialites,” who could possibly care that the author of this trivial article called on one of his friends to appear in it? And, if he painted him in a favorable light because of their past relationship, so what?

But you get the point: The Times is scrupulous about disclosing all situations where the paper’s reporters have personal biases or conflicts of interest.

Except, of course, when they’re important. The Times is now in the process of reporting on the implications of its own illegal publication of the illegal leak about the NSA’s international terrorist surveillance program. As Scott has pointed out here and elsewhere, the Times’ own publication of the leaks plainly violated Section 798 of the Espionage Act. The Times’ actions constituted a felony punishable by up to ten years imprisonment.

In this morning’s paper, the Times finally gets around to noting its own reporters’ and editors’ legal jeopardy in an article by Adam Liptak:

[T]he Bush administration is exploring a more radical measure to protect information it says is vital to national security: the criminal prosecution of reporters under the espionage laws.

Both critics and allies of the administration say that the espionage laws on their face may well be read to forbid possession and publication of classified information by the press.

A second law is less ambiguous. Enacted in 1950, it prohibits publication of government codes and other “communications intelligence activities.” Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who took part in terrorism investigations in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks, said that both The Times, for its disclosures about the eavesdropping program, and The Post, for an article about secret C.I.A. prisons, had violated the 1917 law. The Times, he added, has also violated the 1950 law.

“It was irresponsible to publish these things,” Mr. McCarthy said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to prosecute.”

The reporters who wrote the two articles recently won Pulitzer Prizes.

So the Times has now acknowledged that its own reporters are at risk of criminal prosecution for their role in the NSA leak scandal.

Yet the Times allows those same reporters to continue reporting on the leak scandal, even thought their own interest–the prospect of going to jail–must inevitably color (or at least be suspected of coloring) their coverage.

Already the Times has been embarrassed by this practice. On March 28, five former judges of the FISA Court testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the NSA program. Eric Lichtblau, one of the two reporters who wrote the original stories publicizing the NSA leak, which are now the subject of a criminal investigation, covered their testimony. Lichtblau wrote that the judges had “voiced skepticism…about the president’s constitutional authority to order wiretapping on Americans without a court order.” As we wrote here, Lichtblau’s account was simply false. To the extent that the judges touched on this topic at all, their testimony acknowledged the President’s constitutional authority to order warrantless surveillance in foreign security cases.

After receiving correspondence from our readers, the Times issued a grudging correction, which we discussed here. But, while the paper admitted that Lichtblau had described the judges’ testimony “imprecisely,” it made no mention of Lichtblau’s enormous personal stake in the matter. As a man with a potential felony prosecution hanging over his head, he has a huge and obvious personal interest in promoting the idea that the NSA program that he exposed to al Qaeda and the world was an illegal one. This interest has never been disclosed in any of Lichtblau’s or Risen’s writing on the leak scandal.

I don’t see any way to avoid the conclusion that the Times applies a higher, more scrupulous conflict of interest standard to its society reporters than it does to its Pulitzer Prize-receiving news reporters.

UPDATE: Several readers have noted that the author of the “male socialite” article was a freelancer, and have said that the Times is tougher on freelancers than on its own reporters. That’s an interesting twist, which may or may not help to explain the Times’ attitudes, but doesn’t, in any event, detract from the original point.

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