Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Who’s Ashamed of Their Pulitzer?

What must it be like in the break room over at the New York Times?

First there was the original story, by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, which revealed that “Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.” That piece won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

Problem is, it should have won a 2005 Pulitzer.

You see, as has recently been better explained, NYT executive editor Bill Keller sat on the 12/16/05 story for “a year” over 14 months. . . which means—for those who love math—that the revelation of Bush wrongdoing should have been published prior to the November 2, 2004 presidential election.

Why did Keller push the Risen/Lichtblau piece past the election? To put it quite simply—more simply than Keller seems capable—because Bush officials asked him to. (The Times probably let the article finally see the light of day only because Risen had a book coming out—you don’t want to be scooped by your own reporter.)

When it was first revealed that Keller had suppressed the story, he was asked for how long. Bill Keller’s answer was the obviously purposefully fuzzy “a year.” We know that it was an obfuscatory answer—and an inaccurate one—because earlier this month, New York Times public editor Byron Calame wrote of his increasing discomfort with the official explanations on the timeline.

After pressing Keller for previous PE columns—to no avail—Calame finally got an answer this time around. Using the vague timeframe, said Keller, “was probably inelegant wording.” When asked by Calame whether the timing of the election affected the decision to kowtow to Bush Administration desires to bury the story, Keller’s risible response was “I don’t remember.”

Judging from the dressing-down Keller received in the letters to the editor published last Sunday in response to the Calame’s “exposé,” Bill can’t be happy to see Byron around the coffee machine.

Which brings us to last week’s smack-down by Federal Judge Anna Taylor Diggs. In case you’ve been too obsessed with the latest “developments” in the JonBenet Ramsey case to have noticed (which would put you in the good company of every national nightly news broadcast), Judge Taylor ruled that the NSA program was a) unconstitutional—violating the First and Fourth Amendments—and b) illegal—violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

At the Times, the original article on the decision appeared last Friday; it was written by Lichtblau and Adam Liptak. The piece is a fairly typical, if cursory, Times story, picking out some high-impact quotes from the decision and playing the ping-pong match that fills in for impartiality—allocating alternating paragraphs to plaintiffs and administration apologists. I was actually a little surprised by the lack of a more detailed sidebar that spelled-out the case and the decision. I was also surprised that, at least in the late edition, this story appeared on the left side of the front page. (Call me an alarmist, but I think it’s really big, above the fold, right-side, bold type headline news when a federal court finds that a sitting president knowingly broke the law and violated the Constitution.)

This one story on Friday has been followed by three stories with these headlines:

Bush Predicts Appeals Court Will Lift Ban on Wiretaps
(8/19 by Lichtblau)

Experts Fault Reasoning in Surveillance Decision
(8/19 by Liptak)

Conflict of Interest is Raised in NSA Ruling
(8/23 by Lichtblau)

While none of these stories is quite as one-sided as their headlines and opening paragraphs imply, all are remarkable in their focus on the spinning of the decision and/or the attacks on Judge Taylor. The articles quote ACLU representatives, Department of Justice mouthpieces, purported legal experts, and even a couple of blogs (or “Web logs,” as the Times insists on calling them) on whether the decision was well written, or scholarly, or whether Taylor is or isn’t a reputable judge. But the articles are light on (to the point of being almost completely devoid of) actual reportage on the merits of the case.

And there are many merits to report on. As Glenn Greenwald points out in several posts that are the mirror opposite of the Times’ last three stories, as far as factual details about the case are concerned, several of the “experts” being quoted throughout the establishment media are not experts at all (many are either completely unfamiliar with civil proceedings or haven’t followed this case—or both). Further, as Greenwald details, most of those “experts” don’t disagree with the main finding in the decision—that the warrantless spying expressly violates the FISA law.

(Greenwald also makes the important point that a basis for much of the criticism—that the decision doesn’t specifically address the government’s defense of the program—fails to acknowledge that the DoJ refused the judge’s orders—twice—to argue the case on the merits, choosing instead to argue “state secrets” invalidated the ACLU’s suit. The decision doesn’t address DoJ arguments because Justice didn’t make them. Greenwald, by the way, was not one of the “Web logs” the Times consulted.)

So, back to the newsroom. While I realize some might spend their workdays in DC, while others are closer to Times Square, I wonder what the room temperature is when Keller, Calame, Risen, Lichtblau, and Liptak—or any combination therein—gather to talk shop. Or, to put it another way, why is the New York Times so ashamed of the excellent reporting originally done to uncover the illegal eavesdropping?

What happened to the days where a paper would race to publish a scoop and then doggedly follow the story and repeatedly remind everyone that it was the work of that very paper that started the ball rolling? Shouldn’t the Times be proud of their reporters and now feel vindicated by the federal court decision?

And what’s up with Eric Lichtblau? He was one of the original reporters on the NSA story, but now his articles seem to avoid the meat and instead mimic most of the rest of the establishment media’s tangential, almost gossipy, approach. Is he involved in some sort of one-upmanship with Liptak—who can be more “impartial?”

And what of Keller? Is the news staff tired of the distraction; are they upset with his persistent need to finesse the timing of the original Bush-requested delay? Aren’t they peeved that instead of giving them all a pat on the back for a job well done and a hearty “go get ‘em,” Keller continues to make himself part of the story? Does anyone dare express it?

And who sees Byron Calame as a friend or an advocate, and who sees him as a pain in the ass? Do the likes of Risen and Lichtblau think that the public editor pushed or pussyfooted? Does Keller even say hello to Calame in the hallway (since he rarely answers his e-mails)?

But, most importantly, why isn’t the front page of the New York Times graced, on a daily basis, really, with follow-up on a story of such monumental proportions? A story of a President who openly violated a federal law, and who now has been found to have violated the United States Constitution. A story originally uncovered by the reporters of the New York Times.

(cross-posted at Daily Kos)


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