In its coverage of the government’s investigation into national-security leaks, the media have forfeited any claim to professional objectivity. News reports are loaded with editorializing terms such as “aggressive [anti-leak] policy,” “sweeping subpoenas,” and “fishing expedition.” And while editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Slate are full of sound and fury, condemning these and earlier investigations as “outrageous,” “threatening,” and Nixonian, voices on the other side are much less frequently heard.
There are, however, two sides to this story. A free society requires vigilant protection of a free press—and of national security. Each poses full legitimate claims, and neither should a priori trump the other. The issue is how to sort out when one of these claims may be privileged and who is best situated to make this decision.
The media’s answer is as loud as it is clear: Newspaper editors or publishers are perfectly capable of rendering these weighty, indeed sometimes fateful, national security decisions. Thus, Leonard Downie Jr. writes that as executive editor of the Washington Post he ruled “how to publish significant stories about national security without causing unnecessary harm.” In a joint op-ed explaining their decision to publish a story about sensitive aspects of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism efforts in 2006, Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, and Dean Baquet, then editor of the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “We weigh the merits of publishing against the risks of publishing. There is no magic formula, no neat metric for either the public’s interest or the dangers of publishing sensitive information. We make our best judgment.”