Fourth Estate or Fourth Branch?

What better way to begin another embattled year for American journalism than reading James Risen’s Intercept account of how top editors at the New York Times dragged the polish off their shoes to delay publishing revelations about NSA domestic spying? It takes a long, long time to rise to that paper’s masthead–years of demonstrating what you can do as a reporter and, more importantly, what you will not do.  Bill Keller and Phil Taubman were children of the Sixties, yet they seem to have missed or lost the most important political lesson of their generation, that Washington will lie its head off to protect the illusions of high office. Their Times thus became a branch of the government–replete with editors suckered into the corrupt universe of federal secrets that they could not share with their own reporters–rather than a critical observer. But herein rests the one and perhaps only big hope for the internet as news medium, that despite its extreme vulnerability to charlatanism, it can still work beyond the reach of the kind of power that successfully manipulated the New York Times.

“The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.”–NYT, 12/16/05

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