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Should the media “out” a CIA agent?

March 4, 2011

The decision by the New York Times, the Washington Post and several other American news organizations to withhold vital information about a CIA operative arrested in Pakistan raises serious questions about the role of a free press in a democratic society.

At issue is whether the Times lied to its readers when it continued quoting Obama administration officials saying that retired Special Forces soldier Raymond A. Davis was a diplomat in Pakistan when the newspaper knew as early as Feb. 17 that he was a CIA contractor. Davis is being held in a jail in Lahore for allegedly killing two Pakistanis in January.

Salon contributor Glenn Greenwald criticized the news media in general and the Times specifically in a column last month in which he said American reporters claim they are objective purveyors of truth when they really have a bias in support of Washington’s national security objectives around the world.

Greenwald said reporters were wrong to acquiesce to U.S. national security officials, who urged them not to release the information about Davis and the CIA because it might jeopardize his life. Greenwald argued that reporters who withhold important information at the request of the White House or the State Department are acting more as propaganda arms of the government rather than watchdogs of public officials.

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with journalists, as individuals, harboring feelings of patriotism or any other political outlook — as long as it doesn’t interfere in their journalistic duties,” Greenwald wrote. “One such duty is to inform their readers of what’s newsworthy and to avoid misleading them; another key duty is to serve as an adversarial check on those in political power (‘the Fourth Estate’) rather than dutifully serving as their stenographers and propagandists.”

Eric Schmitt, a national security correspondent for the Times, said in an interview that he and his colleagues were justified in temporarily withholding Davis’s CIA connection because doing so could have put his life at risk.

“It’s flat wrong,” Schmitt said of Greenwald’s analysis. “The New York Times never called Ray Davis a diplomat. We quoted President Obama calling him a diplomat. To call us an arm of the government because we gave them [the Obama administration] the benefit of the doubt to ensure the safety of an American citizen in a dangerous country — please. That’s a stretch.”

Schmitt said the Times was not going to withhold Davis’s CIA connection indefinitely, adding: “If [reporting the story] was going to risk the life of an American … do we really want that on us? What’s the trade-off? What does the reader gain?”

Davis was arrested in the city of Lahore on Jan. 27 for allegedly killing two armed Pakistani men in what U.S. officials have described as an act of self-defense during a robbery attempt.

Although the White House insisted that Davis was a U.S. diplomat covered under international immunity agreements, the Times, as well as the Washington Post and the Associated Press, learned soon after that the 36-year-old Virginia native was really a CIA contractor who was part of a surveillance team gathering intelligence in Pakistan for at least a year.

Despite this knowledge, reporters withheld this information from their readers when the Obama administration asked American news outlets not to report Davis’s ties with the CIA, saying the publicity could jeopardize both his life and the White House’s ability to win his release.

Davis’s cover was blown, however, when The Guardian newspaper in England reported the CIA connection on Feb. 20. The American media followed suit two days later. (See reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post.)

Ewen MacAskill, a Washington correspondent for The Guardian, said he and his colleagues in London and Pakistan decided to report the story after some “soul searching” because they felt it would be unfair to their readers and the Pakistani public to conceal the information.

In addition, MacAskill said the newspaper went forward because it was common knowledge in Pakistan that Davis was working for the CIA and that he had formerly worked for Blackwater, the controversial private security firm that is now known as Xe.

“We didn’t do this lightly,” MacAskill said in an interview. “It was difficult for us because it was hard for us to determine if he was in danger.”

Schmitt acknowledged that newspapers in Pakistan were reporting Davis’s CIA connection. But he said the Pakistani press lacks credibility because it is always accusing American citizens there of being CIA operatives.

“If you pick up he Pakistani press, you hear this all the time — that Blackwater guys are everywhere, that CIA guys are everywhere,” Schmitt said. “This is a constant drum beat in the Pakistan media. It’s like white noise. For them [The Guardian] to say it was already known, well, that’s not the case.”

Kelly McBride, the head of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said news organizations are always making decisions about what kind of information to publish and when to publish it.

She said it was legitimate for news outlets to withhold information at the request of a source in the short term while they try to assess the damage that might be done by reporting such material. Publishing too soon, she said, can “short-circuit” that assessment process before reporters and editors have a chance to determine whether the source’s concerns are verifiable.

The central question, she said, is whether the audience needs the sensitive information “right now.”

“I think they [the news media] would be looking for a way to publish in a short amount of time rather than at this minute,” she said. “When you have someone’s life hanging in the balance, it’s very difficult.”

Note: See response from the New York Times public editor here.

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From → Analysis

One Comment
  1. Lawrence permalink

    As a former reporter for a local newspaper, I can cite several instances where reporters witheld stories until after an “embargo” date and time, or held stories until a particular date or action in order to maximize impact, or even did NOT write newsworhty stories for a variety of reasons.

    Were these journalists doing their readers and the profession a disservice? Were they putting “localism” above the public good??

    Or is journalism much more complicated than simply reporting everything you know as soon as you know it?

    I vote for the former. And I considered myself a pretty hard-nosed reporter.

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