Bill Keller and Dean Baquet Define the Stakes

The editors of two of the nation’s major papers make an eloquent and compelling argument for a press that holds government accountable when no one else will.

If you’re like us, often as not you skip reading newspapers on long holiday weekends. But this weekend, that would have been a mistake.

Saturday’s New York Times and Los Angeles Times featured an extraordinary op-ed piece, printed in both papers, co-authored by Bill Keller and Dean Baquet and headlined “When Do We Publish a Secret?” (Keller runs the New York Times newsroom; Baquet is his counterpart in Los Angeles.)

It’s an eloquent and compelling argument, in which, brick by logical brick, they make the case for a press that holds government accountable when no one else will.

Keller and Baquet note that “We, and the people who work for us, are not neutral in the struggle against terrorism. … But the virulent hatred espoused by terrorists … is directed not just against our people and our buildings. It is also aimed at our values, at our freedoms and our faith of the self-government of an informed electorate.” In short, they are reminding us that the war on terror must be accompanied by a conviction that what we are fighting for are the very liberties that distinguish us from them — and that to snuff out those liberties obliterates the difference between us and them.

Toward that end, they quote Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who, in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, wrote: “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people.”

Defining the terms from which they proceed, Baquet and Keller strip it down to the essential: “Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf, and at what price.” (Emphasis added.)

They conclude: “We understand that honorable people may disagree with any of these choices — to publish or not to publish. But making those decisions is the responsibility that falls to editors, a corollary to the great gift of our independence. It is not a responsibility we take lightly. And it is not one we can surrender to the government.”

Put that way, the alternative becomes apparent: government proceeding as it wishes, overriding any laws that it chooses to, unrestrained by any watchdog at all.

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.