Newspapers try to get it right
Many others don’t seem to care
Here’s a secret: Newspaper editors sometimes agree to requests from public officials to withhold or delay publication of articles we are investigating.
It’s dangerous. We can be accused of collusion and concealment, or suppressing or hiding information from the public.
Some editors would never do such a thing, and others would never admit to it, but most of us believe in doing the right thing for our communities, not just our readers. Usually, that is publishing everything we know. Once in a while, it is not publishing.
For example, over the course of my career I have been asked by police, politicians and bureaucrats to back off a story temporarily. Often I have politely refused; sometimes I have acquiesced, at least once to my chagrin, because it appeared to be in the public interest.
Sometimes we do it, especially in matters involving the justice system, without being asked, but we weigh carefully the benefits and costs of publication.
The perception of collusion with public officials is dangerous for newspapers, but so is the perception of creating hardship for the community at large. Both weigh heavily on editors.
We f avour transparency, but there are exceptions.
It brings to mind a recent (and typically cryptic) tweet by the president of the United States: “the Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist, Al-Baghdadi. Their sick agenda over National Security.”
It seems Donald Trump got his information from a segment on one of his favourite news programs, “Fox & Friends,” entitled “NYT foils U.S. attempt to take out alBaghdadi,” which aired Saturday just before Trump’s tweet.
It’s a complicated story. Fox ran an article accusing the Times of publishing a story in 2015 that harmed U.S. attempts to capture a terrorist.
But the Times said (and here’s why it’s relevant to this column) the paper described the piece to the Pentagon before publication and “they had no objections.”
So the Times had done its due dil- igence, both for readers and national security.
Last weekend, the paper asked Fox for an apology: “Neither the staff at Fox & Friends, nor the writers of a related story on Foxnews.com appeared to make any attempt to confirm relevant facts, nor did they reach out to The New York Times for comment.”
Fox didn’t provide an apology, but did update its story online.
The real irony is that the president, who has unique access to the best classified information in America, simply had to make a phone call to learn more, but instead relied on Fox News.
It is no wonder conspiracy theorists worry it is just another step in Trump’s ongoing mission to delegitimize the media en route to establishing an authoritarian regime.
Democracy dies without a free press. Many politicians hate journalists, but most recognize the importance of journalism. Good ones respect that journalists do work that benefits everyone, even if it hurts a few.
We all try to work together. Sometimes the relationship can be way too cosy, and sometimes it is simply not co-operative enough.