Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

Two scandals, very different outcomes. But in both instances, journalists (with the assistance of government personnel) obtain sensitive information. Printing or broadcasting the material could create serious security risks, both at home and abroad. Without much regard for those consequences, the material finds its way into the press, generating both shock and outrage.

But there any similarities between the two episodes. When The New York Times, The Guardian and other publications printed excerpts from the Wikileaks cables (facilitated by the theft of classified material by a U.S. Army Private), those outlets were hailed as heroes. But when the former British tabloid News of the World hacked into phone voice-mails--with the assistance of police officers--and published details, the public furor resulted in the closing of the 148-year-old paper. The scandal has sent shares of its parent (News Corp) plummeting, and just today, the company's CEO and Deputy CEO (Rupert and James Murdoch) were grilled by a British Parlimentary committee.

Is there more than a touch of hypocrisy at work here? Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal certainly thinks so:

In both cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means, was disseminated publicly by news organizations that believed the value of the information superseded the letter of the law, as well as the personal interests of those whom it would most directly affect. In both cases, fundamental questions about the lengths to which a news organization should go in pursuit of a scoop have been raised. In both cases, a dreadful human toll has been exacted: The British parents of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, led to the false hope that their child might be alive because some of her voice mails were deleted after her abduction; Afghan citizens, fearful of Taliban reprisals after being exposed by WikiLeaks as U.S. informants.

Both, in short, are despicable instances of journalistic malpractice, for which some kind of price ought to be paid. So why is one a scandal, replete with arrests, resignations and parliamentary inquests, while the other is merely a controversy, with Mr. Assange's name mooted in some quarters for a Nobel Peace Prize?

The easy answer is that the news revealed by WikiLeaks was in the public interest, whereas what was disclosed by News of the World was merely of interest to the public. By this reckoning, if it's a great matter of state, and especially if it's a government secret, it's fair game. Not so if it's just so much tittle-tattle about essentially private affairs.

Of course, it also depends on which media outlet(s) are involved in the episode. If it's The New York Times, exposing a previously-classified government surveillance program, why alert the Pulitzer Committee. If it's News Corp, alert the authorities.

One final note: the American press isn't above the illegal intercept of phone calls in pursuit of a good story. We recall that both the Times and the Washington Post ran articles based on information from a Democratic activist, who monitored phone calls between then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and John Boehner. And in the late 80s, a reporter from the Cincinnatti Enquirer hacked into the phone system of Chiquita Brands. Material he gleaned from the calls formed the basis for an 18-part "expose" of the company's activities in Central America.

1 comment:

Paul G. said...

You forgot to mention that the Wall Street Journal is a Murdoch property. Any chance Bret's defending his boss by minimizing an egregious crime? Of course not.

You really can't tell the difference between a newspaper paying off the cops and hiring private investigators to break into people's cellphones and being the recipient of the Wikileaks cables? Really?