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Martin Garbus Headshot

History Prohibits Sulzberger, Times from Burying Facts of Meetings with Bush Administration

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The Times as a censor? There is something wrong here.

The media, history, and many Americans describe the press as the Fourth estate, the fourth branch of government. We believe the Executive, Judicial and Congressional branches of government check and balance each other, and that the fourth branch, the press, attempts to keep the other three honest, accurate and transparent. The law, in recognition of the press' contribution, expands their (and our) rights so they can get the story and print it -- the media is more protected than ordinary citizens -- the journalists' privilege help get the story and libel and defamation laws are in many ways more favorable to media defendants than to private persons.

I, and other media lawyers sound almost religious as we chant the First Amendment mantra "Congress shall make no law . . .".

But the New York Times will not tell us why they held the surveillance scoop story. And the New York Times reporter who wanted the "scoop" to run long before it had, James Risen in his fine book, The State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, does not tell us what went on at the Times as it stopped his story.

Byron Calame, the New York Times Public Citizen, was not in the loop and when he tried to find out what happened, he got thoroughly stonewalled.

Censorship? The Times demands both the right to make the government more accountable and more transparent and the right to keep themselves not transparent and not accountable. Hypocrisy?

It just doesn't wash. Our hopes for a free vigorous crusading accurate media get daily dashed.

I have heard reasons for not pressing the Times. It, along with several other papers, is one of the best, if not the best, media institution we have. The Times personnel, from Bill Keller down, are amongst the best and the brightest. It can be argued that pressing the Times at the same time that the Bush Administration is threatening criminal indictments because of the Times' publication is wrongheaded -- that the Times needs all the suport and friends it can get.

I don't agree. I want to see, as much as possible, a clear, lucid, unequivocal press. I want to see a transparent newspaper that tells us why they did what they did to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The Times (and the Washington Post) stands for something more than themselves. They are still gold-plated models that set standards for the media. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during Watergate, David Halberstam in Vietnam, Sidney Shamberg on Cambodia, Ray Bonner in Nicaragua were all essential. Without them, the country would be in a different place. We all are better because of them.

But like any other institution, the Times can bend with the wind. They did not bend to Nixon on the Pentagon Papers; they did bend to Bush on the "scoop."

The Times does not get a free pass for wonderful work done in the past. It cannot be treated like the other branches of government unless it, too, can be held accountable to the American people.

When the Times courageously decided to publish The Pentagon Papers, it fired its counsel who said they should not. Neil Sheehan and his colleagues disappeared for three months to edit the papers, knowing all the while the Nixon Administration would jump on them as soon as the material was published. The Times was so leak-proof that even Dan Ellsberg did not know they were going ahead until one Saturday night, he learned of the Sunday "bulldog" edition.

And remember, the "facts" against publishing The Pentagon Papers were far more substantial than the 'facts" justifying the Bush surveillance.

The past is the present and is, unfortunately, the future. What about tomorrow? We have not seen Arthur Sulzberger and Judy Miller's full version of their debacle; we saw the Times' editorial endorsement of the Iraqi war in part on the basis of its inaccurate reporting, its reporting of the Wen Ho Lee case, and many more mistakes.

The newspaper business is facing tough times. Twenty years from now, or sooner, the daily printed press, as we now have it, will be totally irrelevant. But what is done today affects how the media, in whatever form, acts in the future.

We have an obligation to be as critical of the Times as the Bush Admistration, when it is appropriate.

Why doesn't the Times see that they are obligated to tell their readers what happened? Whatever happened is an essential part of our history. The Times, as it censors history and buries the facts, is in an awful position.

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