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Contentions

The Ten Commandments of the New York Times

The New York Times has “a comprehensive set of ethical guidelines, but if they were reduced to Ten Commandments, the first two would certainly be Don’t Lie and Don’t Do Anything Illegal”—or so says Matthew Purdy, the “investigations editor” at the newspaper. Purdy is responsible for leading the reporters and other editors who, among other things, try to unearth highly classified U.S. government secrets, often with great success.

“[W]e go to great lengths to follow the law while reporting aggressively,” says Purdy, and he cites an example:

Evidence that emerged during a terrorism trial in London that ended recently showed the authorities there had surveillance on two of the July 7, 2005, transit bombers at least a year before those deadly attacks, but had not followed up on those suspects. This was urgent information, but a British court order prohibited publication until the trial was over. We, like our brethren in the British press, held the story for months until the verdicts were in.

But, of course, Purdy is here talking about British law, which his newspaper does seem to scrupulously observe—even going so far as to block British readers from reading certain stories on its website. (The Times‘s own story about this extraordinary practice, “Times Withholds Web Article in Britain,” can be viewed here, though the link may require registration.)

But what about U.S. law?

As Purdy surely knows, among other things, the United States has a statute on the books—Section 798 of Title 18—that makes it a crime to publish classified information pertaining to communications intelligence. The Times has flagrantly violated this provision, as when it published James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s December 16, 2005 article disclosing a top-secret National Security Agency program to intercept al-Qaeda communications, a story that numerous government officials, including Jane Harman, then the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, say caused serious harm to American counterterrorism efforts.

The Times‘s position seems to be that Section 798 is unconstitutional, although none of its reporters, editors, or lawyers has ever come out and actually said so. A debate can certainly be had about the constitutional status of Section 798. But as I point out in a sharp exchange with another Times editor in the current issue of the New Republic (which continued here for another half-round), it is up to Congress to pass laws and the courts then determine whether they are unconstitutional. Journalists, even powerful ones like the editors of the Times, are not free to pick and choose the statutes they wish to observe and then claim immunity from prosecution for violating the others.

Yes, the Times does go to “great lengths,” as Matthew Purdy says, to observe the law—British law, that is. Its adherence to American law is a different story. If nothing else, our newspaper of record has thus found a very imaginative way to observe its own Ten Commandments.


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