After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco. Some of the reporting in The Times and elsewhere prior to the war in Iraq was criticized for not being skeptical enough of the Administration’s claims about the Iraqi threat. The question we start with as journalists is not “why publish?” but “why would we withhold information of significance?” We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so.
— Bill Keller, then-executive editor
The New York Times
Germany surrendered to the Allies 67 years ago today. A few days ago, we saw a little footnote to that milestone. The Associated Press apologized for firing correspondent Ed Kennedy in 1945 over one of the biggest scoops in AP history. Kennedy reported the unconditional surrender a full day ahead of the competition, defying military censors to do so. The AP publicly rebuked him, and quietly canned him.
The apology came a bit late for Kennedy, who died in a traffic accident in 1963.
This is not to confuse him with another Kennedy who also died in 1963, and had earlier persuaded The New York Times to back off the Bay of Pigs story for national security reasons. (See Keller quote above.)
The icing on this tale came today, when we learned that the AP knew last week that the United States was closing in on Underwear Bomber II in Yemen — but withheld the news at the request of the government. That’s what the WSJ reported this morning, anyway:
U.S. officials had known about the plot for about a month, and President Barack Obama was briefed on the plot in April. White House officials had persuaded the Associated Press, which had an account of the plot in hand as early as last week, to hold off on publishing because the intelligence operation was still under way.
This is fascinating. It was one thing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with government censors in 1945, when the entire country was united in the all-out effort to win WWII, and cooperation with the censors was reflexive.
But today? When it is fashionable to call the War on Terror the “so-called War on Terror”? When, as Keller mentions above, the leftward side of the political spectrum persists in excoriating the media for not being skeptical enough prior to the Iraq invasion? For a major media entity to respond with a snappy salute to a government request to be discrete is decidedly remarkable.
This will no doubt spark dark rumblings — and probably already has; I’m not bothering to look — among Republicans about whether the AP would have agreed to this request if it had come from the Bush administration.
What do you think about all of this? Oh, you want to know what I think. Well, I don’t know enough to have an opinion yet. I’d like to know what the AP knew, and what it was told before it made the decision to hold back on the story. The default position for a journalist is to report a story when you know it’s true, as Keller reported. But this sounds like it’s one of those rare cases in which lives may have been saved by holding back — which would justify the decision to wait.