Jill Abramson spoke at the Columbia Journalism School last week on the topic “In Defense of Leaks” as the final lecture of the Tow Center’s Journalism After Snowden Series. The Series began with an inaugural panel last January with Jill Abramson, Janine Gibson, David Schulz and Cass Sunstein, moderated by Tow Center Director Emily Bell.
Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, began her talk by contextualizing the Obama administration’s record on press freedom. She quoted Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative critic who recently said, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history.” The current administration has exerted far more control than that of George W. Bush—President Obama has pursued eight leak criminal cases, more than double the number in all prior administrations. One close aide in the Obama White House told Abramson, “Obama hates all leaks. He likes things to be tidy. And he won’t tolerate leaks of classified information.”
Abramson was managing editor of the New York Times during the release of the Wikileaks Cables and was Executive Editor of the Times when the Snowden documents were published, giving her a unique vantage point. She described her position as a “front-row seat to politics and journalistic decisions that were involved in many of these cases.” She offered both a philosophical take on the importance of leaks and the role of journalists as independent watchdogs of democracy, and on the practical considerations of making difficult calls on national security stories.
During the Bush Administration, Abramson was involved in half a dozen cases where the White House asked the Times not to publish a story. In all but one case, the Times published the information, but withheld delicate information. Abramson underscored that these decisions are always incredibly difficult, but was unequivocal about her stance. “I’ve come to believe that unless lives are explicitly in danger, such as during wartime, when you might be disclosing things that could endanger troops or involving putting people who are under cover in danger, almost all of these stories should be brought out in public, except in certain circumstances.”
A salient moment of the lecture was Abramson’s re-telling of the decision to publish a particular national security story. In 2011, The director of national intelligence asked Abramson to hold a story that was to be published the next day about a telephone intercept of a well-known terrorist leader. She was told that many U.S. embassies abroad had been emptied out, and that the government believed an attack might be carried out if the story was published. The director of national intelligence at the time told Abramson, “If you publish this story you will have blood on your hands.”
“I had heard these same words from the Bush administration. Significantly aiding Al-Qaeda. When the president or the director of National Intelligence says that any editor takes this very seriously.” The NYTimes altered the story, removing the names of those whose conversations were being intercepted.
“Our careful deliberations were beside the point—the next morning McClatchy published the story, names and all. McClatchy took a different posture from the Times. McClathchy didn’t feel it was important to call the U.S. government for input on these cases.” While Abramson insisted that for some stories, it is important to work closely with the White House, and Intelligence community, she also deliberated: “In retrospect, I actually think McClatchy made the right call.”
Implicit in Abramson’s re-telling of these stories was skepticism about the government’s behavior during both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, and the feeling that national security had too often been used to silence journalists unnecessarily.
She defended the patriotism of journalists: “We are actually patriots, too” and repeatedly expressed regret about withholding certain stories and was critical of the immense growth of the surveillance state: “I think we [journalists] have been too meek.”
Much of the lecture seemed like an act of journalism in itself: the re-telling of stories about the NYTimes newsroom in a post-9/11 climate. The stories were personal – about the decisions and actions of individual reporters and editors—to publish or not, store or destroy drives, collaborate or set a distance from government institutions. These stories are valuable for young students of journalism who can expect to be exposed to an increasing number of national security stories in years to come and may face similar questions throughout their careers. For example, Abramson described receiving a call from Alan Rusbridger, the executive editor of the Guardian, asking the Times to keep a copy the Snowden cache. This was a unique moment when somewhat competing publications collaborated across the pond to store and protect information they believed to be in the public interest.
And yet, Abramson expressed disappointment about the way the NSA story has been reported since the initial newsbreak. She took particular note of the media’s seeming lack of interest in the NSA’s collaboration with the Israeli government.
Abramson also commented on the current case of James Risen, the New York Times reporter. “He has been a thorn in the side of the Government for years and I am proud of him for that.” The Department of Justice will decide this Tuesday whether they will subpoena James Risen.
You can watch the entirety of Jill Abramson’s Lecture here.
The Journalism After Snowden series, supported by The Tow Foundation and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has included lectures by David Sanger, Steve Coll, Ethan Zuckerman, James Bamford, and Jill Abramson, in collaboration with the Yale Information Society Project.
The Tow Center will continue this conversation with a panel on National Security Reporting in the Age of Surveillance with Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, Marty Barron, the Executive Editor of the Washington Post, and Susan Glasser of Politico. This closing event will be at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on February 5th, 2015. RSVP here.
The Journalism After Snowden project has also included Digital Security Workshops for graduate students of journalism.