What is the proper balance between protecting public safety and promoting public knowledge?

That's a question news organizations face constantly, particularly at a time when American troops are in action overseas. The answer is that we in the media must take both values seriously. Freeing citizens from fear, and from ignorance, are both profound acts of patriotism, but sometimes they are in conflict.

The latest example of this conflict comes from the New York Times, where Steve worked for 25 years. Last week the paper disclosed a secret program of government eavesdropping that evaded clear requirements for judicial review. At the government's request, however, the Times held the story for a year and omitted "some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists."

Critics on both extremes exploded in anger. President Bush said the story should never have been published at all, and called the leak to the Times "a shameful act" that is "helping the enemy." By delaying publication, stormed the liberal blog "Daily Kos," the Times had cooperated in a "moral crime (that) betrayed the American people."

Both of those arguments are wrong. By insisting on publication, the Times provided readers with important information they need to hold their leaders accountable. That decision was reinforced by the reaction on Capitol Hill. The Times story led directly to a decision by Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to hold oversight hearings. "There are limits to what a president can do under the Constitution," said Specter.

At the same time, The Times did not just rush blindly ahead with its scoop. It asked for the Administration's opinion and listened carefully. As executive editor Bill Keller put it, "when faced with a convincing national security argument," the paper was willing to make compromises. It changed its mind, says Keller, for two reasons: questions surfaced about the program's legality, and the paper decided it could write a story without revealing critical secrets.

This is precisely how the relationship between the media and the Administration should work, and usually does. It's a common misconception that news organizations don't give a damn, that all they care about is "selling papers" or boosting ratings. But that's not true.

Media outlets have an ongoing, back channel relationship with defense and intelligence officials. Like Keller, most news executives are willing to accept a "convincing national security argument" to withhold sensitive information, and they should.

The problem is that news organizations cannot talk about what they don't print or broadcast. Their conversations with the government usually remain secret. But several recent cases provide a useful glimpse into how this complex relationship really works.

The Washington Post, for example, revealed a network of secret prisons maintained by the CIA outside the United States, but at the Administration's request, the Post omitted their specific locations in Eastern Europe. It was an important story, well worth printing despite the embarrassment it caused the Administration.

The Post was also right to withhold the names of cooperating countries. The benefit of doing so was marginal, while the potential cost was high. As the Post put it, "disclosure might disrupt counter terrorism efforts in those countries and could make them targets of terrorist retaliation".

CBS applied the same logic when it obtained the incendiary photos of abuse and torture inside Abu Ghraib prison. The Pentagon asked the network to hold off release while American troops were fighting insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The argument, which CBS properly accepted: the photos could inflame the resistance and cost American lives.

But once the fighting died down, and troops were no longer in danger, the public's right to know about the horrors of Abu Ghraib took precedence and the photos were aired. Same photos, different circumstances, different judgment.

At the beginning of the Iraq invasion, the Pentagon asked news organizations not to air videotape of American prisoners because their families had not yet been notified. Everyone complied. But when the military wanted the tape embargoed indefinitely, no one did. Once the families were notified, the press' obligation to the public outweighed any privacy or propaganda concerns voiced by the Pentagon.

These media balancing acts seldom convince critics on either side who insist on seeing the world in black and white, with-us-or-against-us terms. But reporting on national security will always be a gray area. Journalists must remain fair and fearless at the same time. Staying safe and staying informed are both basic American rights.

Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.


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