The Times cuts Time some slack

After lashing into the magazine for agreeing to hand over its reporters notes in the Valerie Plame case, the Times offers up a more sympathetic view today.

Published July 1, 2005 12:54PM (EDT)

What a difference a day makes.

After laying into Time magazine hard yesterday for deciding to hand over Matthew Cooper's notes to the federal prosecutor in the Valerie Plame investigation, the New York Times is out with a much more sympathetic view of the Time decision today.

In the version of the story posted on the Times' Web site yesterday morning, Times reporter Adam Liptak said that the "decision by a major news organization to disclose the identities of its confidential sources appears to be without precedent in living memory." Liptak tones it down in the rewrite out today: The unattributed "without precedent in living memory" becomes "legal experts said yesterday that they knew of no other instance in modern journalistic history."

More significantly, the Times now gives Time its say, and at some length. Under the headline "Top Editor at Time Inc. Made a Difficult Decision on His Own," Lorne Manly and David D. Kirkpatrick offer up a sympathetic look at Time editor Norman Pearlstine's thought process in deciding to turn over Cooper's notes. For months, the reporters say, Pearlstine has been reading old legal decisions and studying other episodes in which editors -- and even presidents -- were confronted with court decisions they didn't like.

Truman backed down when the Supreme Court blocked his plan to take over the nation's steel mills. The Nixon administration turned over the Watergate tapes after the Supreme Court said that it had to do so. "This was the kind of issue that began engaging me in ways I had not predicted," Pearlstine says in the Times piece. He said his first "knee-jerk" reaction was to withhold the documents, but that he ultimately came to hold another view: "The journalist and the lawyer were fighting in my head," he said. "But if presidents are not above the law, how is it that journalists are?"

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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