Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Comments on an Article in

The article concerns the NYTimes decision to not publish information on the Bush Admin's warrantless NSA spy program, and the Times subsequent reversal of its decision.

The Press & Human Judgment

What are the sources the public has available to it for information about what the Federal government is doing?

1. The bulk of the information is supplied by the government information apparatus itself.

2. Individual members/employees of the government from time to time disclose information without the approval (or knowledge) of their superiors.

3. The "independent" Press reports information supplied to them by one or both of the previously cited sources.

The Press has few qualms about relaying info from source #1. In fact, it would seem the Press has a duty to convey to the public what its government is saying. Can anyone imagine any Press organization refusing to conduit the White House Press Secretary's remarks to the public, even if those remarks were patently false?

The bulk of media government-activity info comes from source #1, and is usually unchallenged, at least in its initial presentation. Issues arising from this dynamic surface only when the government-supplied info, upon further investigation, proves to be inaccurate.

The "further investigation" alluded to above brings source # 2 into play. And with it brings agonizing decisions that the Press is forced to confront, primarily in the national security arena.
Stating the obvious, press people overwhelmingly do not want to be "traitors" to the very country that enshrines Freedom of the Press in its founding and still governing document, the Constitution. Yet neither do they want to be mere dupes of an unscrupulous and incompetent administration by withholding information that the public "needs to know."

Press decision-makers are thereby faced with the dilemma of making case-by-case judgments on individuals stories. Human judgments. Extremely complex human judgments will possibly momentously serious consequences regardless of whether they choose to keep silent or publish.
One solution: A categorical policy that when a news organization has information that has been thoroughly vetted, it publishes that information, period. No human judgment involved. Relegate the decision to a computer.

Other than such a policy, news organizations will still rely on human judgment when confronted with such decisions. And sometimes they will make the "correct" decision, and sometimes they won't.

In other words, the Press is just like the rest of us poor slobs.

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