When Journalists Choose to Deceive

The public editor (ombudsman) of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, has looked into the newspaper’s extremely questionable actions in a recent situation — withholding key facts from articles at the request of the Obama administration and then actively misleading readers — and concluded that the paper did the right thing. I could not disagree more.

Let me note here that I’ve known Brisbane for many years. We’ve been colleagues at several news companies, and he’s a friend. But I believe he got this one very wrong.

The case at hand: Raymond Davis, who either works for the CIA or has extremely close ties, shot and killed two people in Pakistan recently. (The Times says he’s a “private contractor” — read: mercenary — who provided security for CIA agents; the Guardian says he’s a CIA spy.)  The U.S. government persuaded the Times and several other news organizations to hold back on his affiliation/employment after the shootings, which have caused a huge uproar in Pakistan, a nation that has increasingly tense relations with America.

But the Times didn’t just withhold that information. It actively dissembled. As Brisbane writes:

For nearly two weeks, The Times tried to report on the Davis affair while sealing off the C.I.A connection. In practice, this meant its stories contained material that, in the cold light of retrospect, seems very misleading. Here’s an example from an article on Feb. 11 that referred to a statement issued by the American government:

“The statement on Friday night said that Mr. Davis was assigned as an ‘administrative and technical’ member of the staff at the American Embassy in Islamabad. But his exact duties have not been explained, and the reason he was driving alone with a Glock handgun, a pocket telescope and GPS equipment has fueled speculation in the Pakistani news media.”

How can a news outlet stay credible when readers learn later that it has concealed what it knows?

The answer is it cannot. And, as Brisbane himself notes, what the Times did was more than simply conceal. When it reported that “Davis’ exact duties have not been explained,” it was, quite simply, being deceitful to its audience.

I appreciate that the newspaper was trying to do the right thing here. It wanted to help protect the life of someone who might be in serious jeopardy if it told the truth it knew. The editors believed they had two options only: Tell the full story (or as much as they actually knew), or deceive the readers by telling only part of it truthfully and using deliberately misleading language in places. I’d have some discomfort picking either option, though if those were genuinely the only two choices I’d have picked the first.

But there was a third option: Say nothing at all — pretend the situation doesn’t exist and write nothing about it. The Times makes daily decisions about what it considers newsworthy, not to mention what stories it feels it’s gathered enough information to tell in the first place.

The say-nothing option wouldn’t have been a lot more palatable; indeed, it would have made the paper look as if it didn’t have a clue about a major story, or, as people would have speculated, that it was not publishing anything for its own (probably political) reasons. But it would have been less dishonorable than the route the paper chose to travel.

Printing nothing would have been journalistic nonfeasance, what Webster describes as the “failure to do what ought to be done.” What the newspaper printed was, in my view, malfeasance — outright journalistic wrongdoing.

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