“The assault on a free press …should be recognized for what it is,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich last Sunday. “Another desperate ploy by officials trying to hide their own lethal mistakes in the shadows.”
While the Bush Administration’s war on a free, independent and aggressive media is unparalleled, US government attempts to suppress information are not new. More than forty years ago, for example, the New York Times acceded to the Kennedy Administration’s request that it play down its advance knowledge of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. (In a recent editorial, the Times wrote that “it seems in hindsight that the editors were over-cautious” by not printing what they knew about the invasion.)
In his open letter explaining the decision to publish the banking records story, Executive Editor Bill Keller referred to the Times’ handling of the Bay of Pigs story. “Our biggest failures,” Keller wrote, “have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. 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.”
What is little known is the role The Nation played in this story. In November 1960, The Nation published the first article on preparations being made for what would become the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to Carey McWilliams, The Nation’s editor at the time, “Ronald Hilton, director of Stanford University’s Institute of Hispanic-American Studies had just returned from Guatemala with reports that it was common knowledge –indeed, it had been reported in La Hora, a leading newspaper, on October 30–that the CIA was training a guerrilla force at a secret base for an early invasion of Cuba.” McWilliams promptly got in touch with Hilton, who confirmed details, and agreed that he could be quoted. McWilliams wrote an article setting forth the facts Hilton had given him, including the location of the base near the mountain town of Retalhulea. If the reports were true, McWilliams wrote, “then public pressure should be brought to bear upon the administration to abandon this dangerous and hare-brained project.” in the meantime, he added, the facts should be checked out immediately “by all US news media with correspondents in Guatemala.” Although a special press release was prepared– to which copies of the article were attached– the wire services ignored the story and only one or two papers mentioned it.
However, The Nation’s article was then called to the attention of a New York Times editor who assigned Times’ reporter Paul Kennedy to do a story. Kennedy filed an article in January 1961 covering similar ground to the Nation’s. But it was the Tad Szulc article in the Times– that ran only a week before the invasion in April 1961 –that Kennedy called the Times’s publisher about. The New York Times yielded to the President’s demand that the story be reduced in prominence and detail.
According to McWilliams’s memoirs (and the Columbia University “Forum” on “The Press and the Bay of Pigs” of Fall 1967), a week or so after the Bay of Pigs fiasco a group of press executives met with President Kennedy at the White House. “At this session,” McWilliams recounts, “the President complained of premature disclosure of security information in the press and cited Paul Kennedy’s story in the New York Times as a case in point. The New York Times’ Turner Catledge then reminded Kennedy that reports about the base had previously appeared in the Guatemalan newspaper La Hora and The Nation.”
The President reportedly turned to Catledge and said, “if you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.” More than a year later, Kennedy told the New York Times’ Orvil Dryfoos, “I wish you had run everything on Cuba…I am just sorry you didn’t tell it at the time.”
To his credit, top Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. also later said that he wished the Times had run its stories so that the whole catastrophe would have been avoided.
As McWilliams notes, “Kennedy was correct: timely disclosure of the facts might have prevented what was truly a ‘colossal mistake;’ but the press elected not to pursue the lead The Nation had provided.”
Never has the need for a free and independent press been greater. Never has the need for news outlets to inform the public about government abuse and wrongdoing been greater.
The Bush Administration is dedicated to sabotaging the workings of a free press–a cornerstone of a true democracy. The vituperative attacks on the New York Times–a newspaper that, as The Nation’s Washington Editor David Corn points out, “consistently published stories that hyped the WMD threat” and whose reporters “–Judith Miller and others–churned out breathless exposes based on Administration leaks and handouts from Iraqi exile groups angling to start a war”–have little to do with the paper’s recent publication of the banking records story. It is part of the White House’s larger and long-term game plan to delegitimize the press’s role as a watchdog of government abuse, an effective counter to virtually unchecked executive power.
The other day Vice-President Cheney attacked the New York Times’ disclosure about illegal wiretapping of US citizens. “I think that is a disgrace,” Cheney said, referring to the Times winning a Pulitzer Prize for the story.
What is disgraceful is the conduct of an Administration that engages in press-bashing to score political points at the expense of constitutional principles.