TOPICS > Politics

Perspectives on Press Leaks

October 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the presidential press leaks’ history. The Bush White House is undergoing an investigation into who disclosed the identity of an undercover CIA officer to journalists, allegedly in retaliation for the antiwar sentiments of the agent’s husband.

The employees of President George W. Bush are not the first to face such scrutiny, nor, most likely, will they be the last. We get some perspective now from: journalist and author Haynes Johnson; Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University; Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois; and Joan Hoff, professor of history at Montana State University.

Richard, start the history lesson for us, what does the record tell us about the use of leaks by presidents through history?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, we are talking about a symbiotic relationship here, Jim. As long as there have been presidents and the press they have been exploiting each other and professing to be shocked when they were caught at it.

In the Washington administration Hamilton leaked against Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson leaked against Alexander Hamilton. When Jefferson became president, he said the only thing in newspapers that he read for the accuracy was the advertisements.

In Dwight Eisenhower’s administration a classic example that presidents like leaks when they advance their interests and they don’t like them when they do the opposite — early in his presidency Eisenhower summoned James Reston, the legendary New York Times correspondent, because he wanted to send a non-official signal to the Chinese Communists that the president’s patience regarding the Korean peace talks was not infinite and indeed that under the worst circumstances Eisenhower might actually consider the use of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. Reston wrote the story. He knew he was being used by the White House. He understood those were the terms of the relationship. The irony is that a few years later Reston wrote a story using a leak Eisenhower didn’t like; Eisenhower complained, ‘who the hell is Scotty Reston to tell me how to run the country’?

JIM LEHRER: So, from a president’s point of view there are good leaks and bad leaks and a good leak is one that is done intentionally and usually done for what purposes? Just like that? Is it trial balloons — for instance, Teddy Roosevelt used leaks a lot. What did he use them for?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. You are right, Jim; 100 years ago Teddy Roosevelt wanted to get Congress to create something called the Bureau of Corporations. This was part of TR’s campaign against those he denounced as malefactors of wealth, the plutocrats of his day. Well, Congress was dragging its heels so TR very skillfully leaked the information that John D Rockefeller, Sr., the ultimate malefactor, was opposed to the Bureau of Corporations. In doing so he transformed the whole debate. No longer was it a question of do you want to have this new bureaucratic agency; the question was: Are you with Teddy Roosevelt on the side of the people, or are you with John D. Rockefeller, Sr., on the side of the plutocrats?

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Haynes, as a longtime journalist, how do you look at the progression or the history of leaks from a journalist’s point of view?

HAYNES JOHNSON: The information is power and the presidents are always going to use that information to advance their positions. That’s perfectly normal and understandable. But it’s grown now to a point — particularly because of television, you can put out and advance a policy and then you can also destroy people. You can use it for good purposes to right a wrong, Watergate was a case where you had information given where crimes have been committed and people within the government came forward privately who might have lost their jobs if they had done it. Other examples, we’re seeing now the allegations of the spy leak for vengeance.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to the specifics that Richard mentioned. Here was a case where Scotty Reston, one of America’s most distinguished journalists — some would argue the most distinguished of his time at that time — he knowingly sat down with the president of the United States, wrote a story and gave the president’s view. The public did not know the president was doing this. He was used in that way. And that was considered good journalism.

HAYNES JOHNSON: This is the problem. It has always been the problem: you allow yourself to be used. What are the standards for journalists? Everybody says we’re protecting our sources. But we use an anonymity to put forward something you know where it came from and this idea of background and leaks and so forth to advance a policy is very pernicious and I think very destructive. Trust is the coin of the realm and I think journalists lose trust when they allow the overuse of anonymity to pursue it and they know that you are being manipulated without telling the larger story. Why am I being given this information? What is the reason for it? What are the motivations for it? That’s part of the story, and too often we don’t do that.

JIM LEHRER: Joan Hoff, how would you trace the growth of the leak in American politics, American government?

JOAN HOFF: Well, I think quantitatively speaking I agree with both Haynes and Richard on previous leaks, but I think quantitatively you have a tremendous increase in the number of leaks and the use of anonymous sources since Watergate.

JOAN HOFF: I think a big time investigative journalism as we now know it really is product of Watergate and the problem there was that the use of anonymous leaks that increased after Watergate led so-called investigative reporters to sensationalize, sometimes even fictionalize what they were saying in the newspaper accounts.

And it got to the point by really the mid-80s that you had some reporters, like Clark Mullenhoff, who was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, say this was running amok and this heavy reliance on anonymous sources simply was not in the interest of the American public.

You had a National News Council set up in 1973 to sort of track these leaks and anonymous sources to create more trust in the journalism profession on the part of American public. It was let die in 1983 simply because you had investigative journalism and anonymous sources basically running amok.

And I think what we don’t think about in terms of these kinds of sources is that they represent a kind of privileged information pure and simple on the part of an insider group of reporters who are in the hip pockets, in my mind, in my opinion anyway, of major politicians and bureaucrats. And it’s not that they are objectively getting leaks, they are getting leaks usually from the conservative reporters are getting them from conservative politicians and bureaucrats, and the liberal reporters are getting them from liberal politicians and bureaucrats. And so it’s always one sided and it has led them to these faked kind of stories, plagiarism, nonexistent sources.

And I think probably it remains out of hand down to the present day and of course Richard Nixon himself was plagued by these kinds of leaks and then set in motion what I think is really a change, a seismic change in the journalistic profession since Watergate.

JIM LEHRER: Because the leaks led to the Watergate story, which led to the revelations about Watergate and led to the fall of President Nixon. That’s what you mean?

JOAN HOFF: Yes, and also then to the romanticizing and glorifying of this type of reporting when in fact if you look back at the progressive muckraker reporters, they weren’t using these kinds of insider leaks exclusively.

I.F. Stone who did a wonderful job reporting both on the Cold War and Vietnam used public sources for all of his stories revealing lies or missteps by the administration, various administrations. We didn’t always have this type of leak based anonymous source based journalism until Watergate. It’s become, I think, the common standard now. And there doesn’t seem to be any way to regulate it or to perhaps even teach young students in journalism schools that this isn’t the best way to make their careers.

JIM LEHRER: Roger, do you also view this with alarm?

ROGER WILKINS: Not really. First of all the greatest presidential leaker there ever was was Franklin D. Roosevelt because the deal was he would call reporters into his office, and he would have press conferences — he promised lots of press conferences and he had them – but the deal was you couldn’t quote him. You had to attribute it to a high administration source. And everybody played the game.

JIM LEHRER: Which is what Eisenhower did with Scotty Reston –

ROGER WILKINS: Exactly but he did it with the whole presidential — the whole White House press corps.


ROGER WILKINS: Obviously some leaks are bad. The Wilson planned leak is a bad destructive, awful leak.

JIM LEHRER: She’s the woman operative that I mentioned.

ROGER WILKINS: Right. But there is an awful lot of useful information that we wouldn’t ordinarily know or there are lots of debates that go on in this city. You know, defense puts on a — is about to put out a proposition, state thinks it’s really bad. They haven’t really been able to get it done inside the government so some guy from state leaks the state plan. All of a sudden it’s out in the public and everybody gets a chance to chime in.

JIM LEHRER: Did you hear the — Margaret’s segment with Eric Schmitt and David Sanger a while ago from The New York Times? David said — Margaret asked him what was thought about in the White House and he said, well, I have been told on background certain things. And I was sitting here thinking we’re going to have a discussion of this very thing in a moment.

So the viewers of the NewsHour tonight and the readers of The New York Times or any newspaper in a similar way heard a perspective that they wouldn’t have gotten had there not been a leak to David Sanger. That’s your point that that is a good thing.

ROGER WILKINS: That’s a good thing and I think that if you have ever been in the government, one of the things you know is that there’s such an over-classification of papers. People just stamp classified, classified, be quiet – why? Because it might be embarrassing not because there’s any national interest at stake. A lot of leaks are leaks of over-classified information, which have nothing to do with the national security but might –

JIM LEHRER: Should it have just been released. But the question of course is it’s folks who practice journalism are making the discussions and are they the ones that should be making them?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I wrote down that exactly. We’ve been told on background. What does that mean? It means you can’t identify the source but they want to you use it to put it out there. It can be useful but it’s overused and it’s abused. There’s a real safety valve for people to come forward who are in danger of losing a job or think a crime has been committed. And the press is supposed to be the intrepid body by which you right wrong. The bad side is you can allow people to be destroyed — McCarthyism for instance -

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Joan Hoff, what you said a moment ago — that should never be a leak. In other words that no information should be leaked anonymously?

JOAN HOFF: No. That would be going to the other extreme obviously. But I think we have to think of two things.

And Roger’s example of FDR was interesting in that FDR leaked to everybody indiscriminately. That’s not what’s happening now. These are very discriminate leaks to specific individuals within the press corps. The other thing is if all of this information on background and secret information being given to the public through leaks and through this anonymity process was that good, one would think the public would have a high opinion of the press and of journalism right now in the United States and that reputation of the profession itself has been going down since Watergate.

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead I want to get back to Richard. Go ahead, finish the thought — I’m sorry.

JOAN HOFF: Well, it just seems to me that this additional information from very specialized leaks is so often manipulated by the bureaucrats and the politicians as to make the public suspicious of them.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Richard, just back to you, is this something that should trouble us or something we should report on and discuss openly as we’re doing tonight but not get all upset about it?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Listen, democracy is a messy business. I quoted Jefferson earlier — Jefferson said “if I was forced to choose between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, I would take newspapers without a government.” And, for all of its imperfections and God know there’s many — the fact is that journalism is an essential part of keeping government honest.

JIM LEHRER: You are not going to have journalism without leaks and there we go. Thank you all four very much.