William McGowan: Adult supervision? @ The NYT? Part 1

William McGowan is the prominent journalist and author, most recently, of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. The book authoritatively covers the important and interesting subject suggested in its subtitle.

Glenn Reynolds hailed the book in the excellent lead review of the January 24, 2011, issue of National Review. Glenn wrote: “McGowan piles up incident after incident demonstrating beyond dispute that the New York Times of today is very different from, and far inferior to, the New York Times of a generation ago….[He] deploys the sheer repetitiveness of the problems as a way of making clear that they are systemic ones, not just the result of a few bad actors or bad decisions.” Numerous excerpts of favorable reviews are compiled here at the site for the book..

We have invited Mr. McGowan to write a series of columns for us on themes related to the book, and he has accepted. In the first column of this series he engaged in a bit of alternate history involving the sting that convulsed NPR. Today he commences an examination of the Times‘s treatment of national security issues:

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Q: What’s the difference between the Boy Scouts and the New York Times?

A: The Boy Scouts have adult supervision.

This joke has long applied to Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the Permanent Boy-King publisher of America’s most powerful newspaper since 1991. Sulzberger’s obsession with diversity has broadened the ethnic and racial backgrounds of Times employees but has lessened the paper’s overall credibility by making diversity a newsroom political ideology, skewing coverage and commentary on issues such as race, immigration, Islam and affirmative action, among others. Sulzberger has lowered the wall between opinion and news reporting and ramped up the coverage of “soft news” and popular culture, which has lessened the Times‘s gravitas. Columnists and news analysts regularly refract serious national issues through comic books, TV shows, movies and video games.

And let’s not forget Sulzberger Jr.’s penchant for insensitive, ill-timed and often jejune remarks, as well as his public gaffes and flip flops. “It sucks,” he said at a special all-staff meeting in 2003 called to air grievances about the Jayson Blair fraud and plagiarism scandal, with a stuffed toy moose–a symbol of Times corporate candor–sitting next to him. He said he wouldn’t look for newsroom scapegoats in the Blair affair, then fired his two top editors. He crusaded on behalf of Judith Miller when she went to jail in connection with “Plamegate,” printing up “Free Judy” buttons and welcoming Miller back from jail with steaks and martinis. Then he fired her too, sitting idly by, publicly at least, when executive editor Keller cited Miller’s “entanglement” with top Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and Maureen Dowd cattily referred to Miller’s “tropism toward powerful men,” which many thought were allusions to an affair Miller may have been having with Libby. (What Sulzberger did or said behind the scenes is unknown.)

Sulzberger, too, has presided over a horrible erosion in the paper’s financial plight, as the company’s share price of $54 in 2003 slid to barely $4 at one point before climbing to its current $10 today. The Times has instituted a digital paywall which it hopes will help boost revenue. A special in-house task force recommended such a paywall in 1995 only to have Sulzberger overrule it, however. “Information wants to be free,” he declared, using the most tattered of Web clichés. The decision caused not only his own paper to follow a digital business model that didn’t work. It caused much of the rest of the industry to follow suit with disastrous consequences.

Increasingly, though, the crack about adult supervision might apply just as well to executive editor Bill Keller, originally passed over by Sulzberger for the top job in favor of fiery liberal and Sulzberger soul-mate Howell Raines. Keller was brought in to nurture the paper back to health and to correct for the crusading liberal biases of Raines. Keller had won a Pulitzer and was regarded as a Lifelong Serious Timesman, temperamentally aloof and self-effacing. He took the job reluctantly, and at first was regarded as passive and avoidant, allowing Judy Miller to “drift” back onto the national security beat after her erroneous WMD reporting and as Plamegate loomed, as well as allowing lieutenants to make decisions more appropriately his.

But since then, Keller has bared his repressed “alpha male” and has taken a much higher profile. Yet in the process he’s proved himself brittle and defensive in the face of outside criticism, has taken to speaking in juvenile and self-contradicting ways, and has subverted or ignored the very recommendations and reforms the paper embraced to prevent scandal and the perception of liberal group-think. And perhaps most important, he has show a remarkable lack of self- and institutional awareness. Keller may have been living inside the newsroom bubble just a little bit too long.

When starting out as executive editor, Keller came across as more open to outside criticism, especially from conservatives.
“Conservatives feel estranged because they feel excluded,” he acknowledged to the New Yorker‘s Nick Lemann. “They do not always see themselves portrayed in the mainstream press as three-dimensional humans, and they don’t see their ideas taken seriously or treated respectfully.” Many thought Keller would lead the paper in a less partisan direction. Yet soon the reality was a shrill and intractable hostility to the Bush White House, egregiously reflected in the paper’s controversial war on terror exposés which Keller had green lighted.

The NSA electronic surveillance program

In December, 2005, the Times exposed a secret program run by the National Security Agency that monitored terrorist communications around the world and in the US. The Times report said it was of dubious legality because it lacked court-approved FISA warrants. The White House had asked the Times not to publish the article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. Reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau noted this, but not the fact that President Bush had summoned Keller and Sulzberger to a meeting in the Oval Office earlier that month to deliver the request and tell them, according to Keller, “You’ll have blood on your hands” if there was another terror attack.

The reporters wrote that the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting and that some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted. The paper offered no information about what had changed to warrant publication. Nor did it note that one of its reporters, James Risen, would soon be publishing a book containing most of the information that appeared in the Times report, which seemed to be a factor in Keller’s decision to run the story when he did because he didn’t want to be scooped by a book written by one of his own reporters.

Reaction against report in the Times was swift and harsh. The president called its publication a “shameful act” that amounted to “helping the enemy.” The Department of Justice opened a criminal inquiry, hinting that it might subpoena the reporters to determine the source of this highly classified leak. The Times party line was that terrorists already assumed their communications were being monitored, so it wasn’t such a secret program.

The Times also took to referring to the program as “domestic eavesdropping” or “domestic spying” when the major focus was on communications originating or wholly occurring abroad. In fact, the Inspector Generals of five intelligence agencies later declared explicitly that the NSA program was a useful tool, providing information that was previously unavailable, as the senior CIA officials maintained, and serving as a very valuable “early warning system,” although Risen and Lichtblau reported that the IG reports showed the program had only limited value.

Showing scant awareness of what the broader public might think of exposing wartime secrets, Keller put out a statement in which he said: “From the outset, the question was not why we would publish it, but why we would not.” But when Keller was pressed by Public Editor Byron Calame to dilate on the exposé, he stonewalled, as did publisher Sulzberger.

However, Keller did tell Murray Waas of the National Journal: “Some officials in this administration, and their more vociferous cheerleaders, seem to have a special animus towards reporters doing their jobs. . . . I don’t know how far action will follow rhetoric, but some days it sounds like the administration is declaring war at home on the values they profess to be promoting abroad.” (Interestingly, the last part of Keller’s remarks was not in Waas’s piece.)

Tomorrow: The SWIFT banking surveillance program.

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