The Times and the Post Go Silent On Us

Why won't the papers discuss the meetings they had with the president about whether to publish two major stories?

Howard Kurtz let us know yesterday in the Washington Post that Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger were not the only ones to get the Oval Office shakedown over a story the Bush administration wanted canned. Apparently, Leonard Downie Jr., the Washington Post’s executive editor, was also summoned to a meeting with the president, to discuss the Dana Priest article in which it was revealed that the CIA was running shadowy detention centers in Eastern European countries.

Both the Times and the Post refuse to verify that these meetings took place, but Kurtz writes that they “were confirmed by sources who have been briefed on them but are not authorized to comment because both sides had agreed to keep the sessions off the record.”

The decision not to talk about the meetings with the president is troubling. Both Keller and Downie have dismissed the significance of what Keller refers to as this “back story” to the story.

But Bush’s intervention to try to stop newspaper stories in the works is not just a “back story.” To the contrary, a case can be made that it is the real story. In both instances, it is clear, even just from the surface evidence, that the White House had a part in dissuading the editors from, in the Post’s case, running a crucial piece of the story, and in the Times’ case, from running the story at all for more than a year.

As we pointed out a few weeks ago, the Post’s decision not to name the countries housing the secret prisons appears to have been the result of caving in to pressure from the administration. And a disingenuous caving in at that, since it was clear that once news of the prisons was out, a paper with less to lose would publish them (the Financial Times figured out which countries were in question and revealed their names). If Downie withheld the names of Romania and Poland because Bush held his feet to the fire, readers are entitled to know that.

The same goes for the Times. The paper has been confoundingly vague about why it withheld the story of warrantless wiretapping for a year. All Keller will say is this, as quoted by Kurtz: “The decision to hold the story last year was mine. The decision to run the story last week was mine. I’m comfortable with both decisions. Beyond that, there’s just no way to have a full discussion of the internal procedural twists that media writers find so fascinating without talking about what we knew, when, and how — and that I can’t do.”

But isn’t talking about “what we knew, when, and how” the very definition of journalism?

It’s clear, as Jonathan Alter wrote last week in Newsweek, that Bush met with Keller and Sulzberger on December 6 in an attempt to keep them from running the story. Was this the only meeting? How often does Bush feel the need to intervene like this? And how much of a part in the Times’ decision-making did this meeting or any other meetings play? And, for that matter, why did the Times decide now that the information about the wiretapping was any less sensitive or dangerous a story than a year ago when it was first discovered?

We have no answers to any of these questions, and they are important ones, questions that boil down to this: What kind of relationship do these papers have with the administration and how does it affect what does and does not get reported?

We already learned a little of the answer to that question from the Judy Miller saga, and what we learned was unsettling. It wasn’t a pretty story, and there were no heroes.

Both the Times and the Post, each in its own way, has labored mightily over the past couple of years to increase its transparency — to let readers in on the who, what, when and where of what gets published and why. But both are still loath to tell us what doesn’t get published and why. Without what Keller dismissively refers to as the “back story,” none of us has the whole story.

For our part, we have always believed the function of a journalist is to tell people what he knows, not to withhold what he knows, and we still believe it.

Both the story of the Post and the president and the story of the Times and the president deserve an audience of more than an inner circle of a dozen or so people at the Times, at the Post and at the White House.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.