NYT‘s Keller: WSJ Wants Us to Be a ‘Cheerleader’ for Bush

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller on yesterday’s Reliable Sources:

KELLER: The “Wall Street Journal” editorial page, I’m sure, would like us to be a cheerleader for the president. That’s not our job…

KELLER: One of the assumptions that was built into the “Journal’s” editorial is that, you know, when the president tells you that there’s a national security reason for not publishing something, you should take that at face value. And, you know, we certainly believe that presidents are entitled to respective, attentive hearings, particularly in matters of national security. And we gave the White House every opportunity to explain why they thought publishing this information would be harmful. We agonized over it. We, as you say, held the story, and we kept reporting.

Keller talked eavesdropping and his defense of Judy Miller in the Valerie Plame case. Fascinating stuff, that is, if you’re into the following what goes on behing the Gray Lady’s curtain.

The full transcript:


THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The “New York Times” won a Pulitzer Prize last month in a story that disclosed President Bush’s domestic surveillance program. But federal investigators are looking into that report and other national security leaks, sparking fears that some journalists could once again be threatened with jail.

Joining us now to talk about the ethics and the dangers of publishing classified information is the “Times” executive editor Bill Keller — welcome.

BILL KELLER, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”: Thank you.

KURTZ: “Wall Street Journal” editorial page says that journalists at the “New York Times,” the “Washington Post” and elsewhere are teaming up with quote, “a cabal of partisan bureaucrats to undermine President Bush’s war on terror.” I’m guessing you are going to disagree with that?

KELLER: Oh, that’s a little silly. I mean, you know — we’re used to, you know, getting slammed from the right and the left. And the “Wall Street Journal” editorial page, I’m sure, would like us to be a cheerleader for the president. That’s not our job.

KURTZ: Does it matter, Bill, if sources are partisan? In the sense that everybody leaks for reason, has some kind of motivation, and it’s the job of journalists, of course, to check it out and make sure that the information is absolutely 100 percent rock solid?

KELLER: Well, first of all, in the specific cases the “Journal” talked about, which was our warrantless eavesdropping story and your paper’s story about CIA prisons, we pitched, but we don’t know who the sources are. So to speculate about their motives is — you know, there’s just no basis for that.

From our point of view, it does matter what their motives are, in the sense that we would like to disclose that information to readers whenever possible so that they can make some judgment about whether the information is reliable. But, you know, in the case of the eavesdropping story, we had nearly a dozen sources. And from what the reporters tell me, most of them were motivated by a sense of dissatisfaction, uneasiness with what the government was doing.

KURTZ: That obviously had to be a difficult decision for you on that story, because you held it for about a year, at least the original version of it, and you published after a personal appeal by President Bush not to go ahead. Why did you decide, after waiting that period of time, to go forward?

KELLER: Well, we worried a lot more during the time we were waiting. But, you know, one of the assumptions that was built into the “Journal’s” editorial is that, you know, when the president tells you that there’s a national security reason for not publishing something, you should take that at face value. And, you know, we certainly believe that presidents are entitled to respective, attentive hearings, particularly in matters of national security. And we gave the White House every opportunity to explain why they thought publishing this information would be harmful. We agonized over it. We, as you say, held the story, and we kept reporting.

And over the course of that time, we came up — our reporters came up with enough information to convince us that it would not damage national security, and also that there was a very, very active debate in all three branches of the government about whether this program was legal or not.

KURTZ: Right. Let me read a little more from this “Wall Street Journal” editorial which came after the CIA fired Mary McCarthy, an officer there, who it accused of leaking classified information. She has disputed that.

The editorial says, “The press is inventing a preposterous double standard that is supposed to help us all distinguish between bad leaks — the Plame name — and virtuous leaks, whatever Ms. McCarthy might have done. It would appear that the only relevant difference here is who’s political ox is being gored, and whether a liberal or conservative journalist was the beneficiary of the leak.”

We do make distinctions between leaks depending on what’s involved, don’t we?

KELLER: Of course we do. Although, I have to say, while a lot of editorial writers and columnists were indignant about the Valerie Plame leak and called for, you know, a special prosecutor, special counsel to investigate it, I didn’t. And the editors and reporters who covered the news didn’t ask for that. I mean, our, you know, misgivings about those kinds of leak investigations are, you know, broad enough to encompass that one.

KURTZ: But, obviously, Robert Novak ,who received that leak on Valerie Plame and her CIA connection, got a lot of abuse in the press.

And on the other hand, a lot of people — you know, there’s been a real split of opinion about whether or not, for example, you know, your reporters in exposing the domestic surveillance program were either doing a noble thing by informing the country of this, or somehow undermining national security.

KELLER: Well, sure. The debate really is not about leaking per se, it’s about the value of the information that was leaked. In the leak of the Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame case, I guess the people who were criticizing that suggested that it was part of a P.R. kind of smear campaign. In the case of the NSA eavesdropping or the CIA prisons, it was — I mean, those were issues that kicked off a serious, national debate about the balance between our liberty and our security.

KURTZ: Now, CIA director Porter Goss unexpectedly announced his resignation on Friday. He had been leading a crackdown trying to plug some of those leaks through the news media. You think that the climate at the CIA, as far as leaks are concerned, might be any different with him gone?

KELLER: I have absolutely no idea. I think the climate was certainly not unique to the CIA. I mean, this is an administration that has been pretty aggressive in its protection of its secrets. You know, there are people in our business, or in the pundit business anyway, who refer to a Bush administration war on the press, and I think that’s melodramatic. You know, I think all administrations are uncomfortable when the press starts probing too deeply. But I do think that this administration has been more aggressive than any in recent memory in trying to …

KURTZ: Right.

KELLER: … send off that sort of accountability.

KURTZ: This is not a theoretical argument for you, because Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days for refusing to disclose her source, who turned out to be Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame case.

KELLER: Right.

KURTZ: With the benefit of hindsight, do you feel like if — that at the time if they’d taken a more cooperative approach to the special prosecutor that maybe a needless confrontation would have been avoided?

KELLER: I don’t know. It wasn’t all in the times (sic) of the newspaper. To a large extent, it was in the hands of the reporter and her lawyers to decide how to handle that. I do think because that was a case that was hard to understand and hard really for people to decide where right lay, that it may have muddied the waters a bit in terms of more kind of clear-cut and serious leak investigation cases, like the NSA and CIA prison cases.

KURTZ: And just briefly, could it have undermined public support for the media, which as you know is not exactly at high levels now when it comes to publishing some of these controversial stories?

KELLER: It may have. I have a fair amount of faith in the American public, and I think they can distinguish between the case like the one we went through last year and the one we may potentially go through this year.

KURTZ: All right, Bill Keller — we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.

KELLER: Glad to do it.