Jill Abramson's sad admission: "I don’t think the press, in general, did publish any stories that upset the Bush White House"

Why did the New York Times back down again and again and hold important stories? The reasons are infuriating

Published July 30, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Jill Abramson speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem,N.C., May 19, 2014.       (AP/Nell Redmond)
Jill Abramson speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem,N.C., May 19, 2014. (AP/Nell Redmond)

There are some singular features of our time — truly the time of the assassins, to take Henry Miller’s phrase. The consolidated surveillance state confronts us. We recommit to honoring will above intelligence at the very moment history offers us an extraordinary chance to turn away from our 20th century lust for power.

Another of these features — or a function of them, maybe — is the assassination of journalism as the essential infrastructure of our public space. I am not much for the “golden age” of anything, however often people get lost in such notions, but we have now not much more than the desiccated remains of whatever our press may once have been.

Prompting these admittedly grim thoughts is a speech Jill Abramson recently gave. Abramson, the executive editor at the New York Times, was canned a couple of months ago and now takes to the lecture circuit before assuming duties as an adjunct in nonfiction at Harvard.

Creative writing would have been the more sensible appointment.

Abramson’s speech was one of several addressing “The Ethics of Privacy” at the Chautauqua Institution, an old convocation of well-intended, ever-concerned self-improvers in upstate New York. Instantly a problem in that she was upside down to the topic. Abramson had little to say about the protection of privacy as an ethical value.

Her intent was to put over the ethics, of which none, of protecting our post-constitutional government as it sequesters itself ever more thoroughly from public scrutiny. “The Ethics of Secrecy” was her true topic, except that the oxymoron would have done her in, as she surely understood.

This speech deserves careful consideration. Forget about what Abramson wanted to put across. So often, I find, the most interesting things people have to say are the things they say without meaning to. This was inevitable in Abramson’s case. How could a former editor of the Times address the paper’s role in maintaining official secrecy without telling us something about the corruption of the reasoning behind the stance?

Abramson’s focus is how and why the American press performed as it did after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. These are good questions. To an important extent what reporters and editors did from 2001 onward — what they continue to do — is merely an exaggerated case of what they did at least as far back as 1947, when Truman declared the Cold War. But there was also a turn on a dime in the media as the Bush administration stumbled back on its feet.

Abramson was the Times’ Washington bureau chief at the time. The debris in lower Manhattan was still settling when Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary, arranged a conference call that included “every leading editor in Washington.”

Abramson dilates on this key moment:

“The purpose of his call was to make an agreement with the press—this was just days after 9/11—that we not publish any stories that would go into details about the sources and methods of our intelligence programs. I have to say, that in the wake of 9/11, all of us readily agreed to that.”

And then the reflection:

“It wasn’t complicated to withhold such information. And for some years, really quite a few years, I don’t think the press, in general, did publish any stories that upset the Bush White House or seemed to breach that agreement.”

So did the media participate in Bush’s declaration of his “war on terror,” an idea of what the U.S. is doing that has brought one disaster, breach of law and murderous episode after another upon us — Guantánamo, the war in Iraq, drone killings, the lot. To hold back on this definition of our time would have been decisive, but were the press to do so, of course, it would have “upset the Bush White House.”

Abramson identifies three moments in the years that followed that made the press look especially bad and sad. Each one flowed from that uncomplicated agreement the media made with Fleischer years earlier:

• The WMD farce prior to the war that deposed Saddam Hussein and now leaves Iraq in smithereens. Judy Miller was the infamous culprit here but merely the worst of many. Every Times editor with a hand in her firing behaved hypocritically.

• The Abu Ghraib prison tortures in 2003 and 2004. As the American Journalism Review put it in a postmortem, “For a variety of reasons, the media were awfully slow to unearth a scandal that ultimately caused international embarrassment for the United States and cast a shadow over the war in Iraq.” A variety of reasons, maybe. One more than any other, surely.

• Then the 2004 decision at the Times to hold James Risen’s piece on the National Security Agency’s illegal wiretapping for a year. I have always admired Risen not only for getting the story and writing it, but also for defending it in the face of the paper's unconscionable resistance and finally forcing the Times’ hand by publishing it in his book. Again, hypocrisy in action when the Times then published Risen’s work weeks before the book arrived, striking its customary speak-truth-to-power pose, just years too late.

“Those three things, in some ways, made the press vigilant and somewhat more aggressive,” Abramson asserted. In some ways and somewhat — this attenuated Times talk justifies the Old English T she has tattooed on her back — but the vigilance since seems to have gone mostly to getting caught naked a little less often.

Case in point: Abramson added a moment of her own in her Chautauqua presentation. This one came just last year, when Abramson received a call from James Clapper, then the director of intelligence, as the Times was about to report on intelligence intercepts between two purported al-Qaida leaders. “Jill Abramson, you will have blood on your hands if the Times publishes this story,” Clapper barked into her cellular telephone.

The Times held the story. McClatchy Newspapers ran it two days later. Nobody’s hands were bloodied. When the Times ran it a month later it suggested McClatchy had jeopardized “national security.” Abramson was executive editor by this time.

Think about some of these dates. The Risen story predated Edward Snowden’s revelations by eight years. Imagine the good of a paper of the Times' stature activating on the story that long back. The same interval elapsed between the last of the "lessons in vigilance" Abramson credited to the Times and last year’s act of self-censorship.

“When someone says, ‘You’ll have blood on your hands,’ you pause and take it very seriously,” Abramson said in explaining herself. Yes, you do. And the first thing you do in your professional seriousness is ask who is saying this and why, and then consider that person’s record in truth-telling. Second, you ask: Is part of my responsibility to help the U.S. government keep secrets? Are my hands the ones at issue?

Abramson’s intent at Chautauqua was to defend the paper that fired her, and the media in general, with the assertion that things got bad and now are better — the ongoing reputation always being the grail, the thing to be preserved whatever the past failures. “The press, in some ways, let the public down,” she said. And elsewhere: “I can now be a little more candid and honest.”

In journalism there is no more honest or less honest. Those are for lawyers and politicians. In journalism there is only honesty and dishonesty. Reader, draw your own conclusion about this journalist.

It is a wash. In effect, Abramson advised her audience that the Times’ coverage now represents the paper’s idea of self-correction and there is no further need for change.

This is the first half of Abramson’s unintended revelation. Consider the point in view of the American-sanctioned coups alone during her time as either managing editor or executive editor: Honduras (2009), Egypt (2013), Ukraine (as we speak), and Venezuela (coming along, not quite there yet). In all cases, the coverage has been instrumental in Washington’s orchestration of coverups.

“Journalists are Americans, too. I consider myself … to be a patriot.” All by itself, this sentence in Abramson’s presentation is part of the reason I chose to write this column. With it Abramson invokes some kind of “balancing test,” by which national security is weighed against “our mandate to keep you all informed,” a curious formulation I will return to in a minute.

The reasoning here is inexcusably flaccid, just the thing for the Chautauqua crowd, maybe, but it does not hold up to the simplest journalism-school standard. As argued several times in this column, the only way an American journalist can be a good American is to be a good journalist. This is duty to country in a single sentence.

The contradiction Abramson sets up is straight from the propaganda handbook. It applies very, very rarely, in times of legitimate war, and the war on terror is not legitimately a war. This is one reason that nomenclature has been important from the first.

It is tempting to say Abramson is corrupt, and she would be an exception if the power she enjoyed at the Times did not do its work. But name-calling does not get us far. We have to push beyond this kind of thing to understand our common problem — no good journalists, no good America — and this brings us to the second half of Abramson’s unintended revelation.

This amounts to a conceptual flaw. Times people are not lying when they tell you they think they are terrific, and almost all of them will tell you this. They have a mistaken idea of what it is that journalists are supposed to do — what makes terrific journalism, if you like. This is the root of the chasm between what journalists do for us — or to us — and what most of us think they should do.

I have to take you briefly to journalism school.

Ninety years ago a disagreement emerged between two of the era’s big thinkers. Walter Lippmann published "Public Opinion" in 1922 and "The Phantom Public" three years later. John Dewey reviewed both in the New Republic and then published "The Public and Its Problems" in 1927. Dewey’s reviews and book were replies to Lippmann’s work. This comes down the decades as the Lippmann-Dewey debate, though the two never debated — and were, indeed, not far apart in a lot of respects.

Lippmann, famously enough, was an elitist (and later the original Cold War liberal, the bronze monument to his kind). He had a low estimation of people’s capacity to behave as democratic citizens. The coming of the modern had made the world too complex for most of us to understand, we who are taken up with our daily concerns. Reflecting this assessment, Lippmann became the high priest in the cult of the expert.

Lippmann concocted an interesting structure wherein the expert was to deploy. He or she was pristinely detached. He had nothing to do with ordinary people and nothing to do with policymaking. With perfect disinterest, the expert advised the political class of the scientifically determined realities, and out of this came two things: correct policy, clean as a whistle of all special interest, and — famous phrase nowadays — “the manufacture of consent.” This was Lippmann’s idea of “democratic realism.”

Dewey had another idea. He did not differ with Lippmann as to the public’s limitations in a mass democracy, which is what both of these guys were coming to terms with. But the necessary elite must be subject to public deliberation, based on an understanding of all available perspectives. From this would emerge democratic consent or otherwise. And consent was not to be manufactured.

“It is not necessary that the many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations,” Dewey wrote. “What is required is that they have the ability to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns.” Swampy prose, for sure, but nonetheless worth the wading.

I see two big distinctions between Lippmann and Dewey. One, intentionally or not, Lippmann encouraged an idea of the public as passive, the recipient of others’ judgments. Dewey, plain and simple, was into participatory democracy even as he acknowledged the complexities in making it work. Despite reservations about both of these men, I have never had difficulty siding with the latter.

Two, from these two positions came very distinct ideas of what the press is supposed to do.

In Lippmann’s conception, and he may not have advocated this himself, journalists would act as go-betweens — conveyors of messages from high places to lower. In effect, this meant functioning as an adjunct of the elite and — highest aspiration of the lowliest among them — to be accepted in its ranks.

Dewey was predictably wary of this role. To him, the press was not to inform the public, tribune-like, but to act as the bearer of an infinitely sided public exchange — a very different thing. E.J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist and one of numerous people to take a side in the “Lippmann-Dewey debate,” put it this way in his book "They Only Look Dead": “Journalism ought to be where facts, convictions, and arguments meet ... The press, by seeing its role as informing the public, abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of our culture.”

Back to Abramson’s curious phrase: “Our mandate to keep all of you informed,” she said. I read her (unintended) meaning, as Dionne would, to be: “Our mandate to keep you, here, informed of what we, there, know and are doing.”

Once more, a wash. The press can either report on the elite’s doings or join in them. For my money, and I bet a dollar of it for Dionne’s and James Risen’s too, the posture of the journalist in the face of power must by definition be adversarial. The moment a reporter or editor assumes the Lippmann position, the job description changes from journalist to clerk.

Abramson and most of her colleagues, in short, are Lippmann-ites. It is no good arguing with or about them expecting an admission that they have abandoned their posts. Journalists are not going to surrender to accusations of desertion. They are doing their work as they think they should. The necessary argument is for another conception of what journalists should do.

And most of them — Abramson handy as Exhibit A — are dead wrong as to what America needs journalists to do now if it is to salvage itself from the assassins. Pitifully enough, journalists now stand among them. And they are their own assassins, or at least willing accomplices in their own murders. This we call self-censorship.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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