Some assessments on the current climate of conflicts and tensions between the press and the government and whether it's preventing reporters from doing their job.
- Seymour Hersh
Writer, The New Yorker
- Bill Keller
Executive editor, The New York Times
- Len Downie
Executive editor, The Washington Post
- Bob Woodward
Assistant managing editor, The Washington Post
- Mark Feldstein
Professor, The George Washington University
- Lucy Dalglish
Executive director, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
- Dana Priest
Reporter, The Washington Post
… You don't think that the introduction of waivers, the fact that some of your colleagues here in the city have gone in and testified [in the Plame case], all that hasn't weakened your ability to report?
Not even relevant. There's always been reporters that climb into the pocket. Come on. We all know reporters that take feeds, and, you know, in this town, that's sometimes the business. You can't cover the White House and be much of an oppositionist. You can't. It's just impossible, this White House.
But when you see the Justice Department issuing subpoenas in San Francisco for reporters who are reporting on steroids in baseball or jailing a blogger, isn't that change?
There's always been tension between us and the people we cover. There's always been threats [of] ... action. I still think the overriding principle is the First Amendment -- I mean, Jeffersonian, classic. I still think any case that gets to the Supreme Court, if it gets there, can only be decided one way. That's my naivete, but you know.
Again, when you have an unpopular war like we have, and a war about which there's a huge amount of disagreement inside the intelligence community, inside the military, I would tell you even inside agencies like the National Security Agency -- huge disagreements about what we're doing and how we're doing -- it's just manifest.
So for all of the pressure you're talking about, the fact is there's much more potential to report because there's much more dissention. It's an unhappy war. So I don't see it as relevant at all. I'm not trying to walk on your story here, fella.
No, no, you're not walking on the story. The story is where it goes. You ever been scared?
Scared of what?
You were going to get prosecuted for espionage; you were going to get raided; they're going to take your files, take you.
Even after you found out that [then-Deputy Chief of Staff to President Ford] Dick Cheney wrote a memo saying that you should be prosecuted for espionage?
He wanted people to go into my house, he called it my apartment, but I had a house. You know, you're talking about that '75, '76 thing. I was told about it. At the time, I didn't think it was serious. ...
You were told?
Somebody in Justice warned me that they were looking at me. Duh. Big deal. It didn't happen. Anyway, I've got other fish to fry with Mr. Cheney, so who cares about what happened or didn't happen? It didn't happen is the point. …
When you hear the attorney general say -- I don't think any attorney general has ever said it in public before -- that they could use the Espionage Act [to prosecute reporters], you don't think that's a change?
I don't think they'd dare do it. Even [John] Ashcroft, at his worst days. On Sept. 12, 2001, the day after 9/11, two different people called me, one from the military and one from a federal agency, saying these guys are going to ruin the Constitution. They'd gone to a meeting -- "You can't believe …" Obviously he was talking about the wiretaps, the NSA stuff. … And so I know.
But I say that underneath all of this bluster and talk and threats, anybody knows that if they make a serious move on the First Amendment, they do so at their political peril, because there's a real core in this country -- it may not be articulated very often -- but there's a real core that if anybody ever really steps on our neck too hard, they're going to suffer; we won't. I do believe that. …
… Is the current atmosphere basically something really new for you?
New in degree. There have been periods in the past, certainly the whole period of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was one, and probably the McCarthy era another, [so] it's not new in kind. [But] in my experience, it's certainly the most uncomfortable time to practice journalism that I can recall.
Uncomfortable just because of the threats?
Uncomfortable for a number of reasons. One is because the country is in an anxious frame of mind because of the war on terror. I mean, we're sitting in New York City, which was one of the targets of Sept. 11. It's still a fairly fresh wound in people's minds. And so there's a kind of extra immediacy about the weight of these kinds of decisions. That's one reason.
Another one is that we have an administration that is more secretive and more hostile to the operations of the press probably than any since the Nixon administration -- for understandable reasons, you know, flowing from Sept. 11 and the war on terror. But, nonetheless, they can make our life very difficult.
And another reason is that the country itself is more polarized, so we have a lot of freelance critics and a lot of angry people in the electorate. And what's happened economically to the news business, the kind of dispersion of voices, is in some ways a very healthy thing for the country. But it also creates some sense of confusion and, I think, diminishes the authority of the mainstream press. …
…All during the time that I've been working at The Washington Post, every administration at one point or another has had a hostile relationship with the media. It comes and it goes. Obviously the Clinton administration was very angry with The Washington Post during the period in which we were reporting on Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. ...
The Carter administration, when they first came to Washington, were very unhappy with the reporting that indicated that they were off to a slow start in their administration, making mistakes. The first President Bush was not pleased at all with the way the press covered him and blamed the press for his not being re-elected.
Probably the one administration that had the best relationship with the press, ironically, ... was the Reagan administration, because they knew that to get angry at us was not helpful to their cause. So instead they would try to kill us with kindness. Jim Baker, when he worked [as chief of staff] for President Reagan, was always available to reporters who covered him, ... but of course he was trying to manipulate them the whole time. So they had an entirely different approach.
This administration came to town determined, like all administrations, to control the message, and they tried to do it through secrecy. ...
This president had fewer press conferences than almost any president in living memory, so access has changed. I know you were trying to be evenhanded, but it seems like there's a war with the press going on, not just with terrorism.
Certainly the relationship between this administration and the media is not a good one, and certainly we believe that the secrecy has been excessive, quite excessive. But at the same time, their job is to do their job, and our job is to find out what's going on. This always happens with the administrations after they've been around in Washington for a while: Personnel begins to change; schisms occur within the administration itself; its control over the message begins to fray. We're finding out more and more all the time. ...
Do you worry about Dana Priest [who reported on the CIA's secret prison system] being subpoenaed, maybe going to jail?
Yes. She worries about that a lot. She worries about some of her sources going to jail or being subpoenaed or being criminally prosecuted for providing information the public should have. It's a very, very worrying thing. That's what I'm worried about in the current atmosphere in Washington. ...
… Has it ever been like this in your tenure?
Oh, in my tenure, absolutely not. ... There was a time in the late '60s to the mid-'70s where there were subpoenas flying all over the place, but then we had roughly 30 years of calm. About the time I was becoming a reporter and then a lawyer, it was a situation where every once in a while you'd see a story. Every once in a while you'd hear about a reporter going to jail -- nothing like we've been seeing the last couple of years.
And when you think about it, there's another logical reason for it. In addition to the state of the law not being all that good, and prosecutors feeling emboldened, we are engaged right now in an environment where the federal government is keeping more and more and more secrets all the time. The number of classified documents, decisions that have been made in 2004, more than doubled the rate from 2000.
When you have a situation where everything is becoming secret, you have people in the government who believe that the only way they can expose some of these workings and operations of the government that might not be going very well is to tell a reporter. ... So you've got more and more secret sources, which leads to more and more leak investigations, which leads to more and more subpoenas of reporters. ...
…Thirty-five years ago, William Safire wrote about that period. He said there was "a conspiracy on the part of the Nixon administration to discredit and malign the press." … Reflecting on that, Nixon, have we ever seen that kind of conspiracy since that?
To be honest, I think every president, almost anybody in government worries about the press and tries to figure out a way to manipulate, close out people they don't like. In this current situation in the Plame case, if you read what Fitzgerald has said, there was a group in the White House that decided to go after Wilson.
Well, the president told the vice president who told his people and so forth: "Declassify things. Do whatever you can to turn this story around."
And within that -- I've written about it -- within that period after Joe Wilson's column in the Times and his interview in the Post, which got buried in the back of the paper, it is clear that at least four of us were talked to in the same way, in roughly the same story: The wife arranged for the trip -- to undermine the trip. That doesn't happen ad hoc. And you've seen sort of the outlines of it from Cheney to Libby to the reporters, Libby meeting with people to talk about it. So I think there was, as Fitzgerald said, a plan to do that.
A conspiracy to manipulate the press?
Or, as I put it, it's damage control. They're not the first administration to do it. I think every administration does it. They just did it in a way that came across or seemed to cut across laws. I don't think they violated the law. But they gave an opening to people to make that allegation. …
…The consequences of all these people testifying in the Plame case and now more subpoenas going out, and you have the BALCO case in San Francisco. This is happening in a time period where news organizations are being pressured financially as well. So is this a new crisis situation?
No, it's not a crisis. The remedy is a better product. Look, in the newspaper business and reporting business, we produce stories that people say, "That's important; that's significant."
We have to make ourselves more useful and do better and dig harder, and then you change the political climate. People will say: "Ah, the press -- oh, [it's] useful. We know a lot about the Iraq war or about terrorism or steroid use in baseball because of the press." So just keep at it and--
-- go to jail. But the next guy should just keep reporting; get more people to take risks?
Yeah. We live in the risk environment as reporters, so that's not worrisome. Hopefully people won't go to jail. Hopefully they will be aroused, ... and public policy will shift. I think [at] the end of 2006, the climate has shifted.
The problem in American society now is not the press. If anything, the public wants the press to be more aggressive, tougher, and dig deeper. So that's exactly our job. ... The press shouldn't become so self-absorbed that if there's a barrier in the road, or there's a snowstorm, or there's a grand jury investigation, we flee from the contest.
There's always been that potential contest really, and it's not that we welcome it. It's part of the price of doing the job. I'm not going home and wringing my hands and saying, "Oh my God, I can't build relationships of trust with people." I can. And that's the mother's milk of this business, as you well know.
You don't change the way you use telephones?
Sure, but it's a minor inconvenience And if this is part of the context in this era, fine. I think it will go away, because the reason the First Amendment has survived and been by and large embraced -- sure, people get mad at reporters, but basically, it works. …
… Do you put real names in documents? Do you use regular telephones? ... You don't want a phone bill sitting around.
Yes, you have to take extra precautions, and you have to think of all the ways that, if the government wanted to figure out who your sources were, that they would use to figure that out. Then you have to try to counter that by being extra careful and taking the extra steps that you wouldn't ordinarily have to, especially in this era.
It's not just that they [sources] work in a secret organization, but they work in a secret organization during the time in which the president of the United States has declared a war on terror. And this administration wants to control the flow of information in a way that is unseen for decades and is willing to go out there on the legal limb to stop that, just to control the flow of information. ...
…Are things worse than they were during the Nixon administration?
Not yet, but they're heading in that direction, and where it's going to end, I don't know. If they actually start prosecuting reporters for espionage, that would be worse than under the Nixon administration. If they actually start throwing more reporters in jail for refusing to identify their sources, that would be worse than what Richard Nixon did. And that's saying something.
You talked about public opinion, after enduring Watergate, being critically important, and public opinion today. How important is the shift in public opinion?
Well, that's an interesting question. One of the things about Watergate is reporters were the heroes then. They were seen as having helped bring down a crooked president. Reporters are not the heroes today.
If you look at our folk culture, our movies, entertainment, the way they're portrayed, journalists today are seen as this gaggle of vultures who go after and attack for sensationalism, for ratings, for entertainment purposes, not through idealism. They're not seen as watchdogs anymore; they're seen as attack dogs.
That may be true, it may be false; we can debate that. But there is much less public sympathy to the press now, to the news media now, than there used to be. And the Bush administration in particular doesn't view journalists as representatives of the public. They view them as another special interest group, out for their own reasons, not on behalf of the public. ...