Steiger, Downie Refused to Join Keller/Baquet Op-Ed

By: Joe Strupp

Managing Editor Paul Steiger of The Wall Street Journal and Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. of The Washington Post were both asked to be part of last weekend’s unique joint Op-Ed piece by the editors of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, which defended the publication of stories about the secret SWIFT bank monitoring program, E&P has learned. But each declined.

“We had talked about doing something together,” Steiger said. “But when I looked at it and thought about it, our position was so different from theirs — that nobody asked us not to publish [our story] — it was a totally different case.”

Steiger referred to the U.S. Treasury Department’s request to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, prior to the stories that first appeared on their Web sites on June 22, not to reveal elements of the secret program. Although the Journal posted its story at virtually the same time, it was never asked to withhold publication.

Negative feedback prompted New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet to write a joint Op-Ed defending their decisions to publish the stories. The Op-Ed piece ran in both the New York and Los Angeles papers on Saturday.

Steiger said he was approached to be part of the Op-Ed last week, but declined to say who made the request or exactly when. “I don’t want to go into details,” he said. “We talked about it and I decided it did not work. I considered it and I decided not to go in because our position was different from theirs.”

He said his choice to decline was not affected by a harsh Journal editorial that ran last Friday and criticized the New York Times for publishing the story — even though the Journal published much the same story. Steiger declined to comment on the editorial, but stressed that the lack of a government request not to publish was a major difference between the two papers’ actions. “It is a big difference if the government asks you not to publish, I would consider that very carefully.” When asked if a government request to hold the story would have blocked publication, Steiger said, “I don’t know how I would have acted.”

Downie said he was approached to add his name to the Baquet/Keller piece sometime last week, but did not want to be part of something that involved other newspapers. “I was contacted by Bill [Keller] and I decided not to participate in a group,” Downie told E&P Wednesday. “I was asked if I was interested in being involved with several editors about this and I declined. I think one of the important things about American journalism is that each newspaper operates on its own and I didn’t want to join in a group situation. We are independent.”

Downie said the Post, like the other three papers, first posted the story on its Web site on June 22, but well after the others. He said it did not make the print version until the second edition on June 23. He declined to comment on the Op-Ed that ran or on the other papers’ decisions to publish in the face of government requests against it.

“We published the story we published, nobody contacted us about publishing it,” he said. On the Op-Ed, he added, “since I didn’t join in, I wouldn’t have any opinion on it.”

Keller and Baquet did not return several calls seeking comment.

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