Reading the New York Times’s “Note to Readers” explaining why it has decided once again to act as a journalistic enabler of WikiLeaks, I wondered why, if the Times believes that openness is so important to the operations of the U.S. government, that same logic doesn’t apply to the newspaper itself. The Times, after all, is still, despite its loss of influence in the Internet age, the leading newspaper in the U.S. and indeed the world. It still shakes governments, shapes opinions, and moves markets, even if it doesn’t do so as often or as much as it used to.
Imagine if the stentorian language employed by the Times were turned on itself. The editors write that
the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing. 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.
Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that readers of the New York Times have no right to know what is being done in their name by the editors of the New York Times? Isn’t it important for us to learn “the unvarnished story” of how the Times makes its editorial decisions — such as the decision to publish the WikiLeaks documents? Sure, we know the official explanation — it’s in the newspaper. But what happened behind the scenes? Maybe there were embarrassing squabbles that will make for juicy reading? Therefore, I humbly suggest that in the interest of the greater public good (as determined by me), Bill Keller, the editor, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, should release to the world all their private e-mails and memos concerning WikiLeaks.
Actually, let’s make our document request broader: the Times should share with the world all its internal correspondence going back years. That would include, of course, memos that disclose the identity of anonymous sources, including sources who may have risked their lives to reveal information to Times reporters. Of course, just as it does with government documents, we would give the Times the privilege of redacting a few names and facts — at least in a few of the versions that are published on the Internet.
My suspicion — call it a hunch — is that the Times won’t accept my modest suggestion. Their position, in effect, is “secrecy for me but not for thee.” But why? Can the Times editors possibly argue with a straight face that their deliberations are more important and more privileged than the work of our soldiers and diplomats? No doubt the editors can see all the damage that releasing their own documents would do — it would have a chilling effect on internal discourse and on the willingness of sources to share information with Times reporters. But they seem blind to the fact that precisely the same damage is being done to the United States government with consequences potentially far more momentous.
The most persuasive argument the Times has made is that “most of these documents will be made public regardless of what The Times decides.” That’s true, but that doesn’t eradicate the Times’s responsibility for choosing to act as a press agent and megaphone for WikiLeaks. When in 1942 the Chicago Tribune published an article making clear that the U.S. had broken Japanese codes before the Battle of Midway, other newspapers did not rush to hype the scoop. They let it pass with virtually no notice, and the Japanese may never have become aware of the disclosure. Imagine if a similar attitude were shown today by so-called responsible media organs. How many people would really go to the WikiLeaks website to trawl through hundreds of thousands of memoranda? Some harm would undoubtedly still result from WikiLeaks’s action, but it would be far less than when mainstream media organs amplify Wikileaks’s irresponsible disclosures.