It’s not exactly news that Bill Keller, as executive editor of The New York Times, acted cowardly and disgracefully in 2004 in spiking James Risen’s pre-Snowden bombshell on Bush administration/NSA warrantless spying on Americans. Some have claimed this cost John Kerry the election that fall, but I’ve always concentrated on the journalistic cowardice and public right to know.
In any case: It was great to see Frontline in part one of its epic program that traces NSA snooping since 2001—and a squirrely Bill Keller himself in brief quotes from interviews—reveal fully what a hapless and easily cowed coward Keller was on spiking that Risen scoop (after White House pleas). And then clearly show how he only published it, more than a year later, when Risen insisted on exposing it in a book.
Risen calls this a “massive game of chicken” in the show. But it was Keller who was the real chicken, or turkey, if you wish. I was quoted about this by NPR back in 2005. And the Times public editor at the time blasted Keller, as I relate in my piece here.
Also, the show reminded us that Edward Snowden refused to go to Keller’s paper with his scoops due to the Times’s handling of the Risen material.
I’ll refer you here to a post last year by Marcy Wheeler, aka “Empty Wheel.” It was sparked by a debate between Keller and Glenn Greenwald over the US media’s frequently caving to government demands to hold or kill stories of national interest. Greenwald, for one thing, told Keller:
As for taking into account dangers posed to innocent life before publishing: nobody disputes that journalists should do this. But I don’t give added weight to the lives of innocent Americans as compared to the lives of innocent non-Americans, nor would I feel any special fealty to the U.S. government as opposed to other governments when deciding what to publish. When Goldsmith praised the “patriotism” of the American media, he meant that U.S. media outlets give special allegiance to the views and interests of the U.S. government.
Jack Goldsmith, one of key players in the first part of the Frontline special, figures prominently in this.
Here are excerpts from interview with Risen that got cut from the Frontline program.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Early Media Response to Glenn Greenwald’s Book—and Fresh Scoops.