Hide and Seek
By Patrick F. Cannon
David E. McCraw, the in-house lawyer who advises the newsroom of the New York Times on legal issues that could impact their coverage, has written an interesting book – Truth in Our Times – about the trials and tribulations of his job.
As you might imagine, Donald Trump looms large, both before and after his election. He has long been famous for threatening to sue for libel, but for never actually following through. The bar for libel is particularly high for public figures, which Trump knows, but I suspect he loves the publicity he gets for yelling about it.
As amusing as the instances McCaw cites are, much of the book discusses more serious matters. One is the presumed liberal bias of the Times. He frankly concedes that the newsroom staff is largely liberal in their politics, but that reporting standards mostly work to prevent obvious bias. I think they generally do succeed on a day to day basis; it’s more in the choice of what is covered that bias creeps in. No newspaper, not even the Times, can cover everything. But they obviously do a better job than Fox News and MSNBC.
McCraw pointed out something I hadn’t thought of that unintentionally feeds the perception that his newspaper has a liberal bias. Many people only know the Times from their web site. I hadn’t noticed it before, but if you open it, the left side features straight news stories, with opinion columnists at the right. Now, the paper’s editorial board and most of the opinion columnists have a liberal slant (David Brooks is one exception). In the paper, opinion pieces are grouped in the last pages of the first section. Since I suspect that most readers rarely or never see the print edition, the web layout would certainly reinforce the liberal bias perception.
But whatever their bias, almost all newspapers have to battle governments at all levels to gain access to public information. In case you think liberals are innocent of this chicanery, the Obama administration brought more indictments for “leaking” than the previous three combined. And you might recall Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server when she was Secretary of State, a clear violation of the law. It was the Times who relentlessly covered her arrogant disregard for the public’s right to know. I think every serious journalist should wake up in the morning with the assumption that all politicians are liars and scoundrels, and act accordingly.
Let me leave you with some sobering statistics, then some words of wisdom (not mine, alas). During the Obama administration, 790,000 people in government had top secret clearances (I once had one, but for good cause). Over-classification of documents was then, and still is, epidemic. In 2016, a congressional committee discovered that an average of $10 billion a year was spent on classification activities, and that more than 50 percent of materials were improperly classified. In 2011, there were 92 million separate decisions to classify material.
In the 1971 Pentagon Papers case (was it really that long ago?), in which the Times sued the government for the right to publish the secret documents they had obtained, Justice Potter Stewart wrote:
“I should suppose that the moral, political, and practical considerations would dictate that a very first principle of that wisdom would be an insistence upon avoiding secrecy for its own sake. For when everything is classified, then nothing is classified, and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion. I should suppose, in short, that the hallmark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognizing that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.”
Of course, the New York Times is sometimes biased in its coverage. So are the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun. But if we didn’t have them, bias and all, who then would keep a jaundiced eye on governments at all levels? Would no news really be good news?
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon