the Future of Journalism Chapter 5 of 10: Future of Press Power By Gerry Storch

Posted on January 12, 2012


Chapter 5

Power of Press

— Use of Power or Abuse of Power?

— All There: Military, Intelligence, Grand Jury Secrets

— Is Objectivity Passe?


What we just discussed … the question of protecting the use of confidential sources with an act of Congress … comes down to the power of the press, and whether it really needs more or already has too much of it.

A shield law could be a tremendously good use of power, with dedicated reporters carrying out exposes of huge previously undisclosed governmental developments that people should know about, based on whisperings from unnamed insiders.

Or it could be a tremendously bad use of power, with unscrupulous reporters making up sources or making up anonymous accusations against hapless, innocent victims who have little chance of fighting back.

It comes down to trust, yet the public’s trust in the media and their believability is at an all-time low. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found in 2009 that only 29 percent of its survey respondents thought the media got the facts straight, which is basically Animal House territory.

“We certainly wouldn’t win very many popularity contests,” says longtime investigative reporter Prof. Wendell Cochran, who now teaches at American University.

“But I’m not sure that is much of a change. In times of great change, as this one is for the news business, it’s not unusual for questions to be raised about institutions. And there certainly are examples of incidents in which the press has not covered itself with glory. What we need to do, in my opinion, is to figure out ways and means for the public to have some confidence that we are accountable to ourselves and to our audiences. More transparency and openness are part of that. But so are better, more consistent practices. You earn trust, day by day, by what you do and how you do it.”

So it’s a battle between journalists … most of them know they could improve but think they can be trusted … and the public who remain leery of them. As a result, there’s no “right” answer to this or to other power of the press questions that we now pose. Here we go …


Should the press have the power to print military secrets?


The all-time example came in 2010, when the New York Times published articles based on excerpts from the WikiLeaks trove of classified U.S. military material … and collaborated with shady WikiLeaks honcho Julian Assange to do so.

“I think The New York Times’ use and access to the WikiLeaks documents is potentially a turning point in journalism,” says Andrea Hickerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“Relying on documents obtained by a third party frees the Times from the burden of maintaining the secrecy of the identity of the original source. The NYT can focus on the veracity of the documents provided and translating their significance to the American public, rather than spending a tremendous amount of time defending the original source, which, in this case, would probably involve a protracted legal entanglement with the U.S. government.

“That said, I think the significance of the content of the documents themselves is interesting but not explosive. There is not a whole lot of new information in the documents, they are dated, and they were not highly classified to begin with. At the very least I think the documents help portray the war in Afghanistan which has typically received much less media coverage than the war in Iraq.”

Anthony DePalma, who spent 22 years at the Times as a reporter and foreign correspondent before becoming writer in residence at Seton Hall University, says his old paper, “along with Der Spiegel and The Guardian, handled the material in a responsible and ultimately resourceful way, doing what news organizations are supposed to do … provide important information. But make no mistake; their publication of the leaked documents marks a real watershed in the development of journalism, one with great promise and also great risk.

“Until now, whistleblowers needed to establish a relationship directly with a reporter or editor in an established publication or electronic media. The process was not an easy one for either the journalist, who needed to somehow establish the reliability of the source and the accuracy of the material, and for the whistleblower, who often ran up against weary and skeptical reporters who had heard similar stories about ‘a great story for you,’ hundreds of times before.

“WikiLeaks, with these revelations about the Afghanistan war, has changed that equation, allowing the whistleblower to bring forward information without being reliant on the mainstream media. It is important to note, however, that mainstream media played an enormously important role in the Afghanistan memos. Had WikiLeaks posted the documents without the three news organizations, the impact would have been severely limited.”

Dr. Matt Duffy, an expert on the confidential sources issue and now a journalism professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, says the NYT “would have been hard-pressed to ignore the information that WikiLeaks provided early. The classified material was also given to two other media outlets early and appeared online a month later. The New York Times acted responsibly by not linking to the original material and also by withholding information that could have caused harm to individuals in the war theater.

“In hindsight, though, the information contained in the reports appears to actually contribute little that we didn’t already know. The Times may have done us a service by looking at the information and relaying it in summary form. The summary shows that there are no ‘smoking guns’ … no signs of widespread abuse or sinister deeds … just a run-of-the-mill, messy war.”

Praise for the publication of the secrets, however, quickly lessened with the revelation by The Times of London that the names of hundreds of Afghanis who had cooperated with the U.S. military, plus which villages they lived in, were contained in the WikiLeaks documents, thus targeting them for extermination by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The New York Times refused to link directly to WikiLeaks mainly for this reason.

DePalma points out that “by providing the documents to the three news organizations in advance of their posting on the Internet, WikiLeaks provided an opportunity for reporters to verify the authenticity of the information, to put the material into context and to cull through the documents to remove some of those that might have negative consequences for some of the individuals named in them.

“The problem here is that the documents were dumped onto the Internet afterward, and the raw material may still include sensitive information.”

But are reporters and editors really qualified to determine if certain released military secrets would cause harm?

“I don’t think newspapers are qualified to guarantee that revealing military secrets won’t endanger soldiers and civilians,” Duffy says.

“At times, however, revealing secrets can be ethically justifiable … particularly if you’re following a utilitarianism model in which the ‘greater good’ of society is considered. In order for democracies to function effectively, the public may need to know about information that the government doesn’t want us to know about. Of course, the government is well within its right to prosecute and investigate the people who leak secrets. In this way, the balance between secrecy and dissemination can be maintained in a healthy fashion … creating a happy medium.”

Lawrence Meyer, who put in 32 years as a reporter and editor with the Washington Post, says “no, I don’t think reporters are qualified” to make military determinations. But he adds, “The New York Times is a responsible news organization that is aware of the dangers of printing classified information and takes appropriate precautions, including consulting with the government, to ensure that national security isn’t threatened by publication of the information. Obviously it can be dangerous to make such information public, but I think the Times is aware of the danger and takes appropriate steps to minimize it.”

Prof. Hickerson agrees: “Whether or not journalists are always qualified to determine the potential harm some of their stories might cause is impossible to tell. In general, however, I would argue that the burden of proof is on the government to offer journalists guidelines on what information may disrupt national security. They could do a better job of explaining … even vaguely … exactly how certain information beyond the obvious naming names and strategic locations might harm U.S. interests and the American public.”

The impact of the story faded even more in early 2011 when Assange faced rape charges in Sweden, had almost all of his staffers quit, and was depicted in an unflattering biography as being paranoid and obsessive about his own secrecy while deploring it in others. Has he come and gone as a journalistic influence/media partner in America?

“I never saw him as either, but I’d say his 15 minutes are fully used,” says Roger Plothlow, a frequent media commentator who is editor and publisher of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Adds Prof. Hickerson: “WikiLeaks is no longer the only game in town. Other shadow or copycat sites are appearing which no doubt curtail the influence of WikiLeaks.”

And will the WikiLeaks episode prompt more of this kind of publication?

No, says Prof. Michael Bugeja, who directs the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University and is critical of what he calls second-hand “Web-think” … which he means reporters who write “from digitized documents and transmit not only the documents but your report via the Internet … all the while giving readers the false impression that you’re on the ground and reporting where and when it matters.”

For traditional on-the-scene reporting, he says, “we can anticipate fewer investigative stories in mainstream media that entail critical thinking, primarily because of media downsizing and outsourcing. The best reporters also tend to be older with greater salaries, so many already have been terminated. Also, investigative reporting is expensive, and many publishers are not willing to support it. So we can anticipate more reports that masquerade as investigative but really only are products of ‘Web-think.’ ”


Should the press have the power to print intelligence secrets?

That issue is coming front and center in 2011 as the Obama administration pursues legal action against New York Times reporter James Risen for revealing U.S. intelligence secrets during the Bush administration, and it also obtained an indictment of a former top National Security Agency official for providing classified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter.

A complicating factor for Risen is that some of the secrets he didn’t publish in the Times he did put in a book afterward.

“The Risen case is a good example of a situation in which the reporter doesn’t necessarily deserve any protection for revealing classified information,” says Dr. Duffy.

“From my understanding, Risen released the information … which basically criticizes the CIA’s handling of Iran’s nuclear program … in a book that he authored. Such a disclosure would be more justifiable had it been made in the New York Times, as part of regular reporting. By releasing it in a book, the act seems less like a public service and more like a self-aggrandizing move to make money from book sales. Even if Risen emerges unscathed from any legal action, the move sends an important message … releasing national security secrets is serious business and reporters should only be doing it thoughtfully and for the right reasons.

“The other case is trickier. The information released is about wasteful spending in the National Security Agency, a notoriously secret organization. Going back to the ‘greater good’ justification, one can certainly argue that the leaker and the Baltimore Sun could meet this standard … that the public has a right to know about possible waste of its tax money. Still, the NSA employee did violate the law, so he may have to face the consequences.

“The courts will likely weigh the bigger picture and ethical justifications in both these cases … toward another happy medium.”

Meyer takes a similar view … “The government is free to prosecute its employees for unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Some things should be secret. That’s in the public interest. The question is how much information should be withheld from the public. That’s a matter for public discussion and debate. But it isn’t up to individual government employees, on their own, to make the determination that a given piece of information or great deal of information that’s classified should be made public. The law restricts unauthorized release of classified information, and the law ought to be enforced.

“As far as Mr. Risen is concerned, he is not protected by the First Amendment or any government shield law. He was aware of the risk he was taking in publishing the information. He decided that the risk was worth it for what were probably good and honorable reasons.”

Prof. Hickerson, though, is more in his corner: “That the Obama administration is taking legal action in both of these cases is unfortunate. Before becoming president, Obama actually spoke in favor of a federal shield law. The fact that he no longer supports such a law and is aggressively pursuing action against Risen is disappointing. Retaliation against journalists reporting on the government may lead journalists to avoid investigative reporting and to engage in self-censorship. This threatens one of the press’s basic functions … to keep check on the government. This in turn leads to a less informed public and the impression of an all-powerful government.”

To DePalma, “the conflict between news organizations and the government over national security is an old one, and not easily resolved.”

He tells this story: “Most news organizations operate under the sound principle that an informed public keeps politicians honest. One striking example of how this works goes back nearly 50 years to the fateful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The New York Times had prepared a sizable page one story on the upcoming invasion, replete with details about the size of the force, the CIA’s role in preparing the invaders and even the expected date of the invasion.

“The newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, James ‘Scotty’ Reston, feared that the story, as written, gave away too much information and that the Times could be accused of aiding the enemy. Reston convinced the publisher, Orville Dryfoos, to intervene and Dryfoos had the article watered down. It still ran on page one, but in a less prominent spot. References to the CIA’s role were removed, and the exact date of the invasion was taken out.

“Within two weeks, the invasion took place and as history records, it was a perfect disaster. President Kennedy was deeply embarrassed by the failure, and later remarked to the Times’ managing editor, Turner Catledge, ‘Maybe if you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.’ It seems to me to be important to keep that lesson in mind now.”


Should the press have the power to print grand jury secrets?

Barry Bonds

The most prominent case of this sort involved the grand jury proceedings against Barry Bonds, which took place in San Francisco in 2003 but continued to be in the news all the way to 2011 as he stood trial on charges that he lied when he told the jurors he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs.
In a rare breach of security, two reporters managed to obtain his original testimony through leaks from a lawyer and had no compunctions about printing stories about it.

DePalma sizes it up … “As an author and journalist, I look at this situation this way: Was the information obtained from the grand jury testimony important? Did its release in news reports inform public debate about an issue of concern to a broad range of people? Can the information be corroborated with additional reporting? If all three questions can be answered affirmatively, then the stories should be published.”

Prof. Hickerson was all for it. “The reporting of San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams is exceptional, ” she contends. “Rarely do we find stories so consistently and meticulously reported over time. It is hard to understand why the government so actively pursued their notes given that no issues of national security were involved.”

She calls it “an interesting case because the San Francisco reporters did not have information that compromised the way the case was being argued. The case had already been argued in front of a grand jury. It isn’t clear what harm was caused by their reporting. If reporting some information will harm people, journalists should give pause and weigh their options carefully.”

On the other side …

Plothlow disagrees, and believes there was no justification for publishing. “Absent extraordinary circumstances, the legal process should be allowed to go forward without this sort of infringement of a defendant’s rights by journalists. This is another example of actions that make it more unlikely for shield laws to get political support. He was a ballplayer, for heaven’s sake … it’s not as if our national security was at stake.”

Meyer: “Grand jury information is supposed to be secret, among other reasons, to allow full and complete investigations to proceed while protecting innocent parties from being falsely accused or maligned in public. The power of grand juries to investigate in secret is a means of protecting the innocent. I’m not a big fan of revealing secret grand jury testimony for that reason. Weighing the theoretical protection of the innocent against the need of the public to know what accusations were made against Barry Bonds isn’t a tough call. In that situation, I would favor maintaining the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.”

Matt Duffy weighs both angles …

“Barry Bonds using steroids is a huge story … and journalists did the public a favor in publicizing it. Still, grand jury proceedings are supposed to remain secret for a good reason … to secure a free flow of information during that process. So, one could argue that releasing such information does damage to the underpinnings of the legal system. I would have rather seen the reporters take the information from the grand jury testimony and use it to find another way to get the story on-the-record.

“In the end, the government tried to find the identity of the grand jury leaker and the reporters were threatened with jail. But, the leaker revealed himself (a lawyer for a defendant) and the reporters were spared. I’d say this was the perfect outcome. No reporter went to jail, but journalists will pause before printing secret information again.

“The important element in all these cases is for journalists to pause and think before they act. I know (from my own experience) that journalists often just think ‘First Amendment’ as the beginning and end of their ethical reasoning. More care should be put into considering the legal system and potential ramifications before rushing to press.”

Jack Lessenberry, a journalism lecturer at Wayne State University and former foreign correspondent for the Detroit News, says “there are always limits. The question is what the limits are and limits on what? I think that every exception proves the rule that if you get hauled up before a grand jury on some zoning violation charge and somebody leaks information to me, it’s much more problematical than information about a pampered, drugged-out superstar who makes more money in a day than the average person does in, perhaps, their lifetime.”


Should the press have the power to be largely immune from libel suits?

Prof. Cochran notes that “practically speaking, libel hasn’t been much of an issue for most journalists since Times v. Sullivan and subsequent decisions. In many ways, that has been good because it removes many threats” … though on the other hand, “libel laws are a form of accountability.”

In the Sullivan case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that for a public figure to win at libel, he/she must prove malice … that the publisher of the statement in question knew it was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.

This set a tough barrier, if not an almost impossible one … and in many cases since, the press attempts to get a libel plaintiff classified as a public figure to immunize itself and to make the category as broad as it can.

“It is true that libel lawsuits have a high burden of proof, especially if you are a public figure,” Prof. Hickerson says. “Arguably this is good because it heads off frivolous lawsuits. People who may not have enough evidence to pursue a libel lawsuit still have other legal options, like suing for emotional distress, for example. As an aside, in contrast to the U.S., UK libel laws place the burden of proof on the defendant, causing many defendants to settle merely because they cannot afford to be involved in a libel suit. Efforts are underway in the UK to change their libel laws and have something more like the U.S.”

But Plothlow makes the point that “the standard is relatively low for someone who isn’t a public figure. I’m not aware of any obvious libel cases that should have been allowed to go forward but were stopped by stringent law.”

Lessenberry agrees. “Papers get sued successfully for libel all the time. The normal way most libel cases happen is like this … the police arrest some guy named John Smith and they charge him with prostitution. A reporter looks in the city directory and finds that there is a John Smith who lives at 516 Main Street and writes a story saying that John Smith has been charged with prostitution.

“In actuality, it’s another John Smith who lives somewhere else. Then the one who has been mistakenly identified either files a lawsuit or gets a big fat settlement from the newspaper for defaming his reputation. So, it’s not at all impossible to sue for libel when mistakes like that happen. It is, however, almost impossible to sue for libel if you are a public figure.”

In any event, reams of material could be written on the state of the libel laws and all the ramifications. Suffice it for us just to say that there have been some novel libel suits in new arenas lately for the press or speaker to contend with.

TEXTING: In Naples, Fla., a lawsuit was filed involving texting, or “textual harassment.”

Seems a woman received an anonymous text to her cell claiming her husband had cheated with one of his employees. She trusts her husband, and since he’s a multimillionaire, he can easily afford an attorney, and the couple filed suit against Jane/John Doe. The next step is discovering the identity of the texter by forcing it out of the service provider.

ONLINE COMMENTS: The Indianapolis Star is in hot water as a judge has ruled that a former Junior Achievement exec in Indiana, Jeffrey Miller, can be given the identities of anonymous posters to the paper’s website as part of his defamation lawsuit.

Miller’s angry because one commenter said he had committed “most likely a criminal act,” and another called him “the most greedy man I’ve ever known.”

TWITTER: NBA referee Bill Spooner is in court … a legal court, not a basketball court … filing against a Twitter feed by AP sports reporter Jon Krawczynski.

Spooner had called a foul on one of Minnesota Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis’ players, and Rambis complained, as is always the case in the NBA. Krawczynski tweeted that Spooner then told Rambis he would “get it back” … meaning get a makeup call that would go his way.

The lawsuit claims the writer thereby accused Spooner of game fixing, a serious offense. Spooner denies saying it, leaving a problem for Krawczynski of whether he has a way to prove it. His lawyer may try to classify Spooner as a public figure since he performs as a ref before tens of thousands of people at games and millions on TV.
The lesson from all three cases? We live in an age of new platforms of communication. But sorry, texters and Tweeters and posters, the libel laws follow you wherever you go.


Should the press use its power to stop trying to be objective?

We’re getting into a tough one here as everyone realizes it’s impossible to be 100 percent objective just as it’s impossible for anyone to be perfect at anything … plus we could get into a tiresome and futile debate about what objectivity really means.

But for a long time, objectivity has been the hallmark stated technique of the mainstream media … the idea being to tell both sides of the story, to be fair, to leave one’s personal feelings out, to be able to conclude as Walter Cronkite did so famously on his newscasts, “and that’s the way it is” … nothing more, nothing less.

Two recent developments have challenged this notion.

First, a hot topic in the journalism world arose of whether reporters should be allowed to call someone a liar in a news story if they wish … in other words, jump to a conclusion rather than let readers make up their own minds. This sprung from CNN’s Anderson Cooper calling former Egyptian president Mubarak a liar for contending that the massive protests against him were foreign influenced.

Then prominent media blogger Alan Mutter declared that the “threadbare notion” of objectivity is dead and that in its place, reporters should “forthrightly declare their personal predilections, financial entanglements and political allegiances so the public can evaluate the quality of the information it is getting.”

Here’s what our respondents have to say.

Lessenberry believes “if it’s demonstrably clear that somebody was not telling the truth, it ought to be pointed out whether you call them a liar or you use some other formulation.” He also notes that “Anderson Cooper is someone who has morphed from being a journalist into being a personality more than anything else. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t do some good work, but he is now sort of a personality, which is a problem with many broadcast journalists where they become the story … people flock around him to meet him and get his autograph because he’s Anderson Cooper.”

As for objectivity, “my thoughts are that there never was any such thing as objectivity. In a perfectly objective universe, you would write a story saying, ‘The child was brutally raped, but the rapist had a good time.’ Or you would write a story that says, ‘The president was assassinated today, but my goldfish ate his breakfast just fine.’ What you try to do is be fair, rather than objective.

“In general, it does sometimes seem hypocritical if we pretend that we don’t have opinions, but then again, if you’re a straight news reporter and you’re reporting on a murder trial, your job is not to take a stand. Your job is to give people all the facts.”

Prof. Hickerson tells us that “objectivity as a news norm is relatively new. The press in the early American republic was openly partisan. It wasn’t until the last century or so that the public began to expect objectivity.

“Philosophically, many people believe that it is impossible to be objective, however, that does not mean that journalists should not try to be objective in their reporting. My fear is if all media become openly partisan, people will only gravitate toward media that are consistent with their beliefs. I believe this would be bad for democracy. A healthy democracy fosters and encourages disagreement and discussion. If people become too entrenched in a particular point of view, they may be less willing to engage with others.”

However, she also believes, “ideally, we like to think journalists cover both sides of a story. Sometimes, however, there aren’t two viable sides. We need journalists to tell us when something is awry because we aren’t privy to the same information they are. It takes courage to call a spade a spade and it is a mistake to think that doing so isn’t sticking to the facts. Edward R. Murrow pioneered this tradition with his coverage of Joe McCarthy.”

Cochran: “Lying (re Cooper/Mubarak) is fundamentally about intent and I’ve never yet seen a journalist (or anyone else) who can truly read someone else’s mind. No human is ‘objective’ about anything. But I hate the idea that is OK for me as a journalist to simply and lazily report the facts that are convenient to what I believe. In that model, there are no honest brokers, only dishonest advocates. It also seems to me that it doesn’t give us any room to learn and to grow as we discover more information, and to change our minds. Instead, we are the prisoners of our own limitations. What a sad state of affairs that would be.”

Plothlow: “Objectivity has always been an impossible goal, but there’s nothing to be gained by providing the level of personal detail that Mutter suggests.”


Now the big one: Is there too much power of the press?

Plothlow: “There’s no doubt that most Americans believe this to be true. Part of this is our own doing and part of it probably can be chalked up to the distrust Americans tend to have of any organization or group of people that appears to wield power.”

Meyer: “I don’t think the press is too powerful, despite the always present danger that the media can do unnecessary damage to an individual’s reputation, print misinformation or endanger national security. I would rather have that situation than live in a country where the media’s right to publish is restricted by prior restraint. Responsible media need to follow appropriate standards and procedures when it comes to national security. As far as defamatory information is concerned, we have libel and slander laws that make it possible for people who have been unfairly or wrongly damaged to seek redress. Those laws are a deterrent against irresponsible media conduct.

“Of course there are limits to how transparent a government should be. Some things need to be secret, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Keeping information secret to avoid embarrassing a government official who’s screwed up or to prevent the public from knowing about flaws or failures in policies isn’t generally acceptable.”

Lessenberry: “Of course there’s a sense in America that the press has too much power. There has generally been that since 1789 in some circles. If we do our jobs correctly, people aren’t going to like us. We’re the messenger bearing bad news. I think we’re occasionally obnoxious, but as everybody has recognized, from the time the founders wrote the First Amendment, we are obnoxious, but necessary.”

Hickerson: “No. The press has limits. Some are self-imposed and some are imposed by the government. The refrain that the press is out of hand seems a common refrain in American history. Without a powerful press, how else will the public know what is going on in the U.S. and across the world?

“Journalists are not just subject to government censorship, but self-censorship as well. The press self-censors in part because it needs to maintain good relationships with government officials. Government officials are top sources for story ideas and general comment. Because I see the relationship between the press and the government as give-and-take, I do not think the press has too much power.”

Bugeja: “The First Amendment empowers the press. It’s the most powerful of our five freedoms. It multiplies freedom of speech. It monitors separation of church and state. It covers assemblies and protests and it verifies petitions. In the end, my view about the power of the press is generational. I practiced journalism in the 1970s. We were taught by the likes of Murrow’s generation that the press had a contract with the nation. As long as we did a thorough, ethical job and practiced restraint when the occasion called for it, we would continue to enjoy great freedom and expose the likes of Joseph McCarthy. We were taught that if we failed to practice restraint, and misled the public because of negligence or sensationalism, we could lose our rights.”

Duffy: “I think there are limits to both entities … the legal system and public pressure. The courts have overseen many cases which have helped shape the press’ approach toward publishing secrets. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in the Pentagon Papers case that the government couldn’t prohibit the press from printing certain information … even if it was regarded as top secret. However, in the Plame Affair, the court ruled that reporters do not possess an absolute privilege to withhold the sources of anonymous information. These two cases … and many others … help shape the balance between the press and the government.”

DePalma: “A free and independent press may sometimes be guilty of excesses. No doubt, press freedom can make the lives of elected officials very difficult. And although corporations revel in and seek out good publicity, they are willing to go to court to try to block negative press articles.

“All in all, history has shown that the benefit of having a truly independent press far outweighs the negative consequences. We must also be realistic about the age we live in. The ubiquity of cellphones, cellphone cameras and social media such as Twitter and YouTube have changed the journalistic landscape. Although even brutal regimes like those in Myanmar, Iran and Cuba have managed to stamp out free and independent press, they are unable to control the countless cellphones carried by their citizens.

“Expectations about government transparency are rising all over the world, and officials who try to deny that they exist will find control increasingly elusive. The amount of material that ought to be concealed is extremely limited to security and public safety. Otherwise, unless a solid argument can be made for keeping data or documents secret, everything should be made available to the public.

“We live in a curious and precarious information age. At one and the same time, traditional news media … newspapers, news magazines and TV news broadcasts … are losing audience and influence, while websites, news aggregators and ordinary people armed with cellphones become increasingly important purveyors of news and other information, including, sadly, rumors, mistakes and misinformation. Electronic data files record myriad aspects of our daily lives, from the books and videos we take out of public libraries, to the groceries we buy at the A&P. The line between transparency and privacy grows ever thinner, and the threats to security grow just as quickly as the threats to privacy. If the referees and arbiters (traditional media) are going to disappear, who or what will stand in and play the same role?”


The last word …

We asked Mr. DePalma, “During your lengthy career with the NYT, you surely were involved with many stories that posed these important questions for you. Can you share with us the one story that means the most to you now and how you dealt with the ethical dilemmas?”

AD: “I’d like to tell you about an incident that occurred while I was bureau chief for the New York Times in Mexico to suggest to you that the issues were are discussing here today are relevant and important throughout the world.

“In 1996, while I was working in Mexico City, a Mexican source came to me with documents that he said showed how the sitting president, Ernesto Zedillo, had been involved in approving questionable payments while he served as secretary of the federal budget department. The source told me he could not bring the documents to any Mexican reporter because the office of the president was so powerful that no one would touch a story suggesting the current president had in any way been involved with corruption. The source … someone I knew and with whom I had worked on earlier projects … said that bringing the explosive documents to me at the New York Times was the only way to get this information to the public, and that it was crucial for Mexico’s fledgling democracy to show that everyone, including the president, must be held accountable for their actions.

“Once I got hold of the documents, I had to first determine their authenticity. Then I needed to independently verify what it was that the documents said. Of course, my source pushed me to interpret them in one way. Even if, as ultimately happened, I came to the same conclusion as my source about what the documents showed, I needed to get there on my own.

“Over the course of two months, I was able to independently report on the situation. Once I was ready to publish the article, my editors in New York and I had a discussion about the ramifications of the article if it ran in NYT. Mr. Zedillo had arrived in office with an unsullied reputation, far different from many other Mexican politicians. Publishing the article would cast doubt on the truth of that reputation, and the president’s office was likely to react aggressively against me and the newspaper. Yet the public importance of publishing was great. The Mexican political system was just opening up after a long period of many decades of single party rule and unquestioned obedience to the president, regardless of the truth. I felt it was important for Mexico to experience the same sort of accountability as would take place in the United States or any other true democracy.

“Before publishing the article, I checked in with the president’s office and gave his spokesman ample opportunity to respond to the charges. Of course, the president denied any wrongdoing, and vaguely threatened to take ‘whatever legal action necessary’ in response to the article. On the day it appeared on the front page of the Times, Mexico’s most important newscast led that night’s report with a summary of the article and a vicious attack against me and the newspaper. The Mexican authorities never followed through on their threat to expel me, and Mexico’s Congress, still tied to the president’s office, declined to take any action against Zedillo. But Mexico’s democracy was bolstered, and it has continued to grow stronger since.”