By: Greg Mitchell
In an unusually tough column on Sunday, Byron Calame, public editor at The New York Times, called the newspaper?s explanation of its decision to hold for over a year its major scoop on the National Security Agency?s domestic ?woefully inadequate.?
He also charged Executive Editor Bill Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. with ?stonewalling? his attempts to get the readers more information, ?despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.? He wrote that for the first time since he became public editor last year, those two men ?have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making.?
Calame added that he had e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Keller on Dec. 19, and got no response. He also sent the same questions to Sulzberger Jr., with the same result.
As a bonus on the Web, Calame published critical letters from readers, linked to outside commentary on the case, and presented the full text of statements by Keller. One letter writer commented: “The promise printed in the left-hand corner of every front page does not read All the News That’s Fit to Print One Year Later.”
Calame explained that he has taken special care in reporting on this case, since he is ?keenly aware that some of the toughest calls an editor can face are involved here – those related to intelligence gathering, election-time investigative articles and protection of sources.? He also credited the two executives with eventually running the important story, despite pressure from the White House to keep it submerged.
But he slammed the paper for offering only a ?terse one-paragraph explanation? about holding the story with a vague reference to that period having lasted ?one year.? Later it emerged that this may have happened for more than a year?going back to before the November 2004 election. ?And the gaps left by the explanation hardly matched the paper’s recent bold commitments to readers to explain how news decisions are made,? Calame noted.
But he added: ?Protection of sources is the most plausible reason I’ve been able to identify for The Times’s woeful explanation in the article and for the silence of Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Keller.?
The ?most troublesome omission? in the newspaper?s explanation, Calame observed, ?was the failure to address whether The Times knew about the eavesdropping operation before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election. That point was hard to ignore when the explanation in the article referred rather vaguely to having ?delayed publication for a year.?
?For me, however, the most obvious question is still this: If no one at The Times was aware of the eavesdropping prior to the election, why wouldn’t the paper have been eager to make that clear to readers in the original explanation and avoid that politically charged issue? The paper’s silence leaves me with uncomfortable doubts.?
Then there?s the question of whether the newspaper only published the story in December due to the pending publication of the book ?State of War? by one of the co-authors of the article, James Risen (which has now been moved up to Tuesday, Calame reveals).
?Despite Mr. Keller’s distancing of The Times from ?State of War,? Mr. Risen’s publisher told me on Dec. 21 that the paper’s Washington bureau chief had talked to her twice in the previous 30 days about the book,” Calame related.
?So it seems to me the paper was quite aware that it faced the possibility of being scooped by its own reporter’s book in about four weeks. But the key question remains: To what extent did the book cause top editors to shrug off the concerns that had kept them from publishing the eavesdropping article for months??