The New York Times building in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)
With criticism and debate over the Obama administration’s deadly drone policy at a high level, it’s easy to forget that this was not the case until very recently. What set off the uproar was NBC’s decision in early February to publish a Justice Department white paper on rules governing US drone strikes aimed at American citizens abroad. This led to an examination of the entire program by the media and some in Congress, and put John Brennan on the spot during his congressional confirmation hearings for director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Although the White House has drawn criticism, less has been said about the media’s failure to probe the drone program, and the way they knuckled under to government requests to withhold secrets. One of the few prominent critics of this journalistic “cover-up” was Margaret Sullivan, who happened to be working at the nation’s most influential media outlet, The New York Times. Her main target was… The New York Times.
Sullivan, the former editor of Warren Buffett’s Buffalo News, became the latest person appointed to the paper’s rotating post of public editor (a variety of ombudsman) last September. On October 13, she took the Times to task, charging that “its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as ‘militants’—itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers…. With its vast talent and resources, The Times has a responsibility to lead the way in covering this topic as aggressively and as forcefully as possible, and to keep pushing for transparency so that Americans can understand just what their government is doing.”
This earned her the praise of others who have criticized previous public editors at the Times for their soft critiques of the paper. “On drones and the Times’s withdrawal from the ‘informal arrangement’ not to disclose the Saudi Arabia base, she was right,” Erik Wemple, a Washington Post media critic, told me. “Right and quick, too. I was pursuing interviews with the paper that morning, and she beat me to the punch, scoring a bunch of insightful material from [managing editor] Dean Baquet.”
When I recently asked Sullivan for an update on her current concerns, she replied, “This is a subject that is very important to me, and I’m sure I will keep paying close attention to it. I did see after I wrote about it in October that there was a slightly different and more precise use of the language in stories, and I was heartened by that. The key is not just the language but the whole question of secrecy around the program and how the newspaper interacts with the government.”
But the drone column and later posts on this subject were hardly exceptions to Sullivan’s crisp reviewing. Among other issues she has raised that drew wide coverage and might even have sparked changes: the policy of the Times, and many other outlets, of granting quote approval to their sources; the perils of “false equivalency” in covering hot-button issues; social media posts by Jodi Rudoren, the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, that appeared to reveal bias against Palestinians in Gaza; the paper’s failure to send a reporter to cover Pfc. Bradley Manning’s first day of testimony at his trial for passing documents to WikiLeaks; the paper’s decision in early March to shut down its popular “Green” blog on environmental issues; and many more.