Tricky call: deciding when news should be held

Friday, May 11, 2012

Journalists are in the business of telling the news, not hiding it.

But there are times — very few times, despite conspiracy-and-bias claims fueled by a media-criticism cottage industry — when news organizations do decide to hold the news that they know.

These instances are rare enough that when they happen, it’s news in itself.

Under the First Amendment’s protection for a free press, decisions about what’s news — and when something is news — rest with journalists, not government officials. The responsibility is a heavy one: A free press exists to act as a guardian of liberty, a watchdog on government. And its stock-in-trade is news, not secrets.

Yet lives can hang in the balance when secrets are exposed — so American journalists traditionally have not reported in times of war on specific troop movements or ship sailing times and such. But when to tell if government isn’t playing it honestly with citizens?

Just this week, two very different stories about journalists withholding news made headlines, illustrating the difficult choices facing reporters and editors.

First, the Associated Press apologized for firing a correspondent in 1945 who broke the news of Germany’s surrender in World War II. Then the AP acknowledged having held a report for several days recently on the latest attempt by al-Qaida terrorists to place an “underwear bomb” on aircraft bound for the United States.

In the first instance, outgoing Associated Press president and CEO Tom Curley said May 3 that it was “a terrible day for the AP” when the news association rebuked, then fired, correspondent Edward Kennedy for reporting a day ahead of 16 newspaper and radio competitors that Germany had surrendered unconditionally.

It was later disclosed that the day’s delay was for political, not strategic, considerations. The U.S. and Great Britain had agreed to wait 24 hours before announcing that the surrender had occurred May 7 at a small schoolhouse in France, so that Soviet leader Josef Stalin could stage a surrender ceremony in Berlin involving the Russians.

Curley said AP was under no obligation once it was known that politics was behind the story’s embargo. “The world needed to know” that the war in Europe had ended, he said. At the time, AP leaders publicly criticized Kennedy and the U.S. military expelled him from France. He later became a successful newspaper editor and publisher.

No lives or national security concerns were at stake in Kennedy’s report, but apparently it was a different matter in the latest “underwear bomber” incident, according to AP.

AP reported May 7 that the CIA had blocked a plot to blow up an American-bound airliner. The news service also confirmed that it had learned about the plot last week, but agreed to White House requests not to publish because the CIA operation was still under way.

“This story developed after the anniversary of the Bin Laden takedown,” AP spokesman Paul Colford said. “The main thing is that we did not put anything on the AP wire until the security concerns that had been brought to our attention were allayed. We moved it today, ahead of the ‘official announcement’ planned for tomorrow.”

In a book about media myths, Getting it Wrong, author Joseph Campbell notes that though it’s untrue that President John Kennedy asked The New York Times not to write about the pending 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, in 1962 Kennedy did ask the Times during the Cuban missile crisis to postpone a report about the Soviets’ having deployed nuclear weapons in Cuba. Given the great possibility of nuclear war at the time, the Times complied, Campbell reports.

The common thread winding through such news decisions is the question of whether there’s an immediate, direct threat to life or national security. A free press never should agree automatically to withhold information for anything less than the most compelling of arguments — certainly not for political expediency or convenience.

This week, AP got it right both times.

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