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nicholas kristof

A former associate managing editor for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof currently writes a twice weekly op-ed column for the newspaper. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 6, 2006.

Is it a political strategy to attack the press today?

Yeah. I think a long time ago politicians figured out that offense is often a pretty good form of defense. The Nixon administration was particularly successful at that, in portraying journalists as not just wrong and unfair, but also an unelected elite.

It is effective in part because we do have a problem in the news media of elitism, and it's one I think that we should be trying to address. There really is a deep resentment and anger on the part of a lot of Americans at the way we report things. …

You think the press is out of step with the rest of America?

Journalism has moved upmarket to some degree since Watergate. Increasingly, if you look at the nation's biggest newspaper and television networks, we're staffed by Ivy League-educated people, often with professional degrees. We're perhaps more likely to know London and Paris than small towns in Texas or Alabama, where you'd have roughly a quarter or one-third of America that is evangelical Christian. There are very few reporters in mainstream news organizations who are evangelicals.

“I don't think there is nearly the same esteem today for journalism. One reason prosecutors go after reporters and toss them in prison is because the public accepts that.”

That does mean that we're not as representative as we should be, that we can't cover some parts of America as well as we should. There are very few reporters for the large news organizations who have military experience. That is something important -- it's harder to understand if you don't have people in the newsroom who have been in that kind of situation. So I think we also do need to look at ourselves and figure out ways of having a genuine diversity that is not just about race but also goes to the breadth of the American experience and try to incorporate a fuller range of background.

This current administration and their relationship with the press, do you see them as being remarkably different from their predecessors?

The Bush administration is profoundly different from most of its predecessors. I think there's a much deeper skepticism about our role in the press -- much less willingness to cooperate, often less willingness to leak to us as well.

I was struck in interviewing President Bush when he was governor and running for the president. From my point of view, here is this son of a president, this blueblood who's governor of Texas and perhaps about to become president, and he seemed the epitome of authority to me. It became clear in the course of the interview that he saw himself as this Texas good old boy who was being interviewed by this authority figure from The New York Times and that we each saw the other as the establishment figure. I found it kind of bizarre that he would perceive The New York Times to be the establishment, given his own background, but I think that there is something to that in this White House staff.

But I think that there also is a genuine distrust, a genuine sense that the press doesn't like them, that we're not going to treat them fairly. We also have different kinds of values.

When you have a source like you did with Joseph Wilson on the WMD [weapons-of-mass-destruction] issue and he wants to remain anonymous, what's your process as a journalist? What goes through your mind?

[Editor's note: In early 2002, Wilson, a former ambassador and National Security Council policy director, was sent to Africa to investigate claims Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger. He reported back that the accusations were bogus. But President Bush later stated in his 2003 State of the Union address that, according to British intelligence, Iraq did try to purchase nuclear material from Africa. In a column he wrote a few months later on the prewar intelligence failure, Kristof cited Wilson's story, but didn't name him. Later that summer Wilson went public and wrote an op-ed piece.]

You'd much rather have a source who is on the record because that person has credibility; it's a real person. They're more trustworthy than somebody who hides behind some kind of other identity. But Joe Wilson was adamant that he did not want to be identified at that point, and I could [see] reasons why he would want to remain anonymous. It's a trade-off that you deal with all the time, not only in this country but all over the world. It is particularly an issue in other countries, because often you're dealing with people whose lives can be at risk.

It's difficult to make those trade-offs, but often, if you want the information, then you have to agree to anonymity, and in this case, I think it indeed was worth it. It would have been great to get Joe Wilson on the record in that May 6 column, but fundamentally, I was able to get that bit of information out there by granting him anonymity. ...

There were other people in the intelligence community who were saying that President Bush had exaggerated intelligence about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, but Joe Wilson's information went beyond that. He said that the White House had taken a report that he had personally discredited and had still gone ahead with it, because it was juicy and sexy, even though they knew that it was wrong. That suggested an element not only of just excitement and pushing things too far, but of dishonesty. That's what made Joe Wilson so important in the look at our intelligence failure and the run-up to the Iraq war. ...

The columns that I wrote at that point reflected my understanding of everything that went on between us. Whenever you talk to a reporter, you don't take what the person says as gospel truth. And that was true of what Joe Wilson said. … Any kind of source, official or unofficial, is to some degree spinning you, presenting the authorized version of events, and that was probably going on with Joe Wilson. But that goes on with anybody. That's what I'm doing to you right now. ...

A number of people were critical of [New York Times reporter] Judith Miller for how she and [former Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney] Scooter Libby discussed how he was going to be identified.

"A former Hill staffer."

Right. Why were they critical of that?

Even when you grant somebody anonymity, you need to be accurate in your description. You can't say "somebody close to Mr. Smith" if it's Mr. Smith himself. That is just dishonest with the reader. You can't say "an Asian diplomat" if in fact it's a Western diplomat. As a reporter, you're trying to be as precise as possible. The other person is trying to find some way of gaining anonymity, but at the end of the day, the description has to be honest, has to be accurate. For example, some reporters have changed gender of the person, and that strikes me as dishonest with the reader. Or they'll multiply a source -- one individual who will become "administration sources." That also strikes me as inaccurate and wrong.

Judy Miller has said that "your reporting is only as good as your sources." In essence, that was what was behind the much-criticized reporting on WMDs that appeared in The New York Times by her.

Great reporting is about getting good information, reporting hard, getting good sources, and Judy Miller was great at getting that information, extracting it from officials. A secondary aspect is showing good judgment and trying to verify information, going back to other people, trying to put that information that you get in some kind of larger context. Institutionally, ... we were not nearly as good at providing that judgment and sharing that judgment with a reader.

I think it's a little bit unfair just to blame everything on Judy Miller. She was one reporter. There should be checks and balances in a newspaper. There are people reading what she wrote; there are people editing her.

What was the point of Judy Miller going to jail?

Frankly, to me, the [Special Prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald investigation and the Judy Miller case are still a little bit murky. When Judy was released from prison, I initially felt a little bit betrayed, because I had backed her.

It looked initially as if, in fact, Scooter Libby may have granted her a genuine waiver and told her "Go ahead and testify" much earlier. In that case, what's she doing in jail? We should be protecting sources who want to remain confidential, not those who don't want to be.

But in fact as time went on, and particularly after I read the indictment of Scooter Libby, I came around a little. I thought maybe Judy was right and that waiver really wasn't very genuine, because if you read the indictment, it's hard to imagine why Scooter Libby would actually want Judy to testify when she would be testifying that basically everything he had told the prosecutor was false. I became more sympathetic to Judy's position later on, that this waiver that he supposedly had granted must have been forged and involuntary and just going through the motions rather than something real. ...

Judy Miller is probably the most famous journalist in America these days, more or less, and she's variously cast as a hero or a villain. I think she's actually an awful lot more complex than that. She at times could be a great reporter in the sense of ferreting out information. On the other hand, she wrote a bunch of stories that in retrospect just really look terrible and embarrassed her and this newspaper and did a disservice to the American public.

She went to jail to protect her source, and that took guts. She put up with a lot of very difficult conditions to serve some kind of a larger principle. On the other hand, the ambiguity of exactly what happened and what the source had told her, to what extent he had told her that she should go ahead and reveal their confidences, that's still unclear to me.

Why do you think that, with the exception of, say, the Knight Ridder reporters and [Washington Post national security reporter] Walter Pincus, the media almost as a whole got it wrong on WMDs?

A couple of reasons. Almost everybody whom we talked to, including Clinton administration officials, were convinced that there was WMD out there. Likewise, intelligence officials -- in the CIA, in the Defense Department -- they were much more nuanced and weren't coming on strong the way the administration was. They really didn't know what was going on in Iraq.

One of the lessons, if you are a spy, is to shade everything, and in general you're better off coming up with worst case scenarios that turn out to be untrue than in coming up with best case scenarios that turn out to be untrue. That was one of the problems in the first Gulf War, when the CIA turned out to have been wrong in the other direction.

So from the vantage point of spies in the CIA, they didn't know what was going on. They were skeptical of the things that [Iraqi National Congress founder] Ahmad Chalabi's people were coming up with, but they could not be sure that those were lies or were wrong. ... I think that it didn't feel as if there was always enough to hang a hat on.

In retrospect, we should have been much more aggressive about that reporting. There were pockets within the intelligence community that were pretty good. The Bureau of Intelligence and Research [INR] in the State Department did a very good job; the Energy Department had experts who looked at those aluminum tubes and basically got it right.

In your estimation, did leaking Valerie Plame's name damage national security?

Unquestionably, leaking Valerie Plame Wilson's identity hurt national security in a couple of ways. One is that she was an NOC -- a non-official cover -- and anybody who had had contact with her in her role as an energy analyst was therefore jeopardized. We don't know exactly who those people are in other countries, but everybody in that network was in jeopardy. More important, her cover was an energy company that had to be closed down. That cover couldn't be used for anybody else, and it costs a lot of money to set up a fake identity for somebody. It costs much more to have an NOC than to have somebody who's under official cover, which is much more customary.

But when you blow an NOC, you're also just sending a message to the intelligence community that you don't value these people. The NOCs are the ones who take all the risks and get none of the credit in the intelligence community. They are the people we should be cherishing most. And to blow Valerie Plame Wilson's identity that calmly and then to make light of it afterward seemed tremendously damaging to national security.

How do you feel about how the Plame investigation has played out to this point?

I think that this investigation by the special prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] has been a disaster, as they all have been -- disastrous not only for the Bush administration, but also for the press, partly maybe because of the way that we played our legal angles. I think we undermined public confidence in journalism and undermined our ability to protect sources in the future, and the upshot may well be that you will have more reporters going to jail before long. ...

There's been a trend in recent years of prosecutors subpoenaing reporters to force them to identify sources. ... That is going to put us in a real bind. ... That goes to the heart of how we get information in this country and other countries. We talk to people and promise them confidentiality, and as a result, we get information. That is how journalism works. If we can't promise confidentiality, and if whistleblowers can't feel confident they can supply information securely and have their identities preserved as secrets, then they're not going to give us information, and it will be a lot harder to get information out there to the public.

If you look at great stories that have been crucially important for the public, whether they be the Pentagon Papers or reports of Abu Ghraib or NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping, all those depended on this system of promising confidentiality. It's a lousy system, because it does allow people with axes to grind to present information that often isn't comprehensive, but it's the best we've got, and I'm afraid that in the long run, the leak investigation is going to profoundly alter and undermine that system.

What was your reaction when Time magazine turned over [reporter] Matthew Cooper's notes?

I confess I was actually one of the few journalists who had some sympathy with [then-editor-in-chief of Time Inc.] Norm Pearlstine in that situation. It seemed to me a very difficult position. I can see that an institution and a company does have some formal obligation to obey the law. It seemed to me that there was a certain amount of merit to his argument. I'm not sure I would have done the same thing, but it seems to me that there is a difference between an institution and an individual. As an individual, I have a sacred obligation to protect my sources; I'm not sure that the same is necessarily true of a corporate entity.

Is it ever OK to reveal your sources?

There are some times when it is OK to reveal your sources. If your source has died, if they have burned you -- given you false information or gravely manipulated information -- then it is OK to reveal them. But I think that has to be done very, very carefully. That is not a step you take lightly. Frankly, I also think it depends on the context and on the risks to the individual. In this country, if somebody is going to be fired from their job, then I would protect that person's identity much more carefully than if it was somebody for whom it was simply a convenience to be anonymous. In China, there are sources that I had whose lives were at risk. I protected those names incredibly closely.

Are confidential sources overused?

I think we use confidential sources too much in the news media. It's easy: People will often tell you things if they can hide behind that shield of anonymity, and we probably are too ready to accept that shield. And it's just convenient; you just run it in the paper. Now, there are some occasions when I think it's understandable why you would grant somebody anonymity -- the classic cases of [a] whistleblower. But when you get a government official -- an assistant secretary of state or a national security adviser hiding behind that shield -- I don't really see what public policy interest is served, why that person should be granted that anonymity. They want to get their view across, and we in the press could be much firmer about saying, "Look, if you want to convey your opinion, then come out and use your name and title."

How do you avoid being spun by a source?

It's very difficult to avoid getting spun, and at times you do. I look back at things that I've written, and there are times when I had been used. When I lived in China, I remember one intelligence person who used to meet with me periodically over lunch, and he basically wanted my information. I didn't particularly want to give it, but I wanted to find out what he knew. There's a very awkward system of, to some degree, trading information. You don't want to do too much of that because you don't want to become a source for a spy, basically. But on the other hand, if somebody's giving you information, then you kind of feel you need to make it worth their while a little bit by sharing some of what you know. It turned out that this spy was fabricating information just to have something good to give me, and then I was giving him some genuine tidbits. It took me about a year to figure this out, but he was just concocting lies to tell me.

Any time you're reporting some kind of government program, you'll get people trying to spin you from both directions. You can sort of understand where each is coming from. What's more difficult is when you get information from somebody and you don't really know their vantage point in a debate, and it is harder to account for the spin they're providing.

In this Plame investigation, there's been a new wrinkle with these blanket releases, getting sources to sign waivers. What is your take on that?

If a source genuinely waives their anonymity, then of course you can come out and say who they are. My interest as a reporter is to get information to the public, and if a source no longer wants anonymity, then that waiver is genuine, and I should say who it is. But if the government goes to a bunch of people and has them all sign waivers and forces them to do so, that's not a genuine waiver, and I don't think that we in journalism should treat them as such.

When would it be acceptable to subpoena a journalist? Or are you an absolutist on that?

I'm not an absolutist on this. There are times when a newspaper should be forced not to publish something, and there are times when I can imagine a reporter should be forced to disclose confidential sources or information, but I think those times should be few and far between.

I don't think that we're anywhere near those cases in the issues that have arisen so far. It certainly was not the case in Judy Miller. It certainly will not be the case in NSA wiretapping or [SWIFT] bank surveillance cases. I think that there is a risk in conjecturing hypothetical cases in which it might be appropriate to send a reporter to jail, and thereby generalizing more broadly.

There are also cases when one could imagine one should force a clergyman to break the confidentiality of somebody who confesses that they're going to go out and murder people, or a spousal privilege, or a legal privilege. Yet in each of those cases, we think that there is some kind of larger benefit to be gained by society by granting privileges. I think the same is true, by and large, of a journalistic privilege. …

You're being sued for defamation. Why?

In the spring and summer of 2002, one of the questions that I wrote about a lot was why the FBI investigation of the anthrax attacks after 9/11 were going nowhere. My impression was the FBI had done an absolutely awful job in that coverage, and in particular a lot of people in bio-defense community were talking about one individual. The FBI's failure to [investigate] him, they thought was demonstrative of the broader failure. That individual, Steve Hatfill, who since outed himself, he is now suing me and the Times. We'll see how that plays out.

But I think that is kind of demonstrative of this broader question of how we investigate an important public policy concern -- how is the FBI investigating an attack using weapons of mass destruction on American soil in ways that do impinge on individuals. How do we report these kind of things without getting brought into litigation?

And I think that maybe this case is, again, an example of how things have changed to some degree, how barriers have moved. I think that probably five or 10 years ago, the case would've been thrown out very early. In this case, it was thrown out. But then the circuit court, by a very narrow margin, reinstated it. And one of the lessons that I've learned is just how burdensome a defense against litigation -- even if it's ultimately successful -- is, not only in terms of cost which is borne by The New York Times rather than me, but in terms of time. Right now, I would actually be in Darfur, except that I have to prepare for a deposition in the case. …

I was also subpoenaed in the Scooter Libby case, although we successfully quashed that subpoena. But it's not just a question of whether you ultimately win in the end. But that process of litigation and their defending against it is time-consuming and expensive, and has a real chilling effect, I think.

Do you think a federal shield law is necessary?

A federal shield law would be great to protect reporters. I think that a federal shield law arises out of a context where reporters are respected and esteemed by the public, and I don't see that emerging in this environment.

Has the rest of the blogosphere affected your reporting or how you do your job?

I think that we in journalism are more accountable today because of the blogosphere than we were 10 years ago. When I started out at the Times 22 years ago, we could write something stupid or mistaken and we wouldn't necessarily hear back, but now we hear back as soon as things go up. The blogosphere is a genuine watchdog on how we cover things. It's often a kind of crazed and demented watchdog, and there are lots of barking in different directions, so it's hard to figure out how to manage it, but that is useful. It's also, I think, there to stay. Even if we don't like it, I think we're going to have to get used to it.

Those who have been talking about liberal bias in the media feel like there was a final kind of ultimate proof of that in what was termed "Rathergate" in the 2004 elections, about the president's National Guard record. How do you react to the impact that's had on journalism?

I think that press coverage of the Bush administration has had the unfortunate result of confirming every prejudice that people have about liberal bias, because there is an overlap of two distinct things that tend to get muddled together.

One is that frankly, there is to some degree within a lot of the mainstream media some genuine liberal bias. I think more reporters vote Democratic in the biggest papers than vote Republican. On the other hand, what is much more important is a sort of bias of antagonism, if you will; an effort to cover very aggressively government officials. In this case you have government officials who are conservative Republicans, and therefore, when you have that kind of tension and antagonism, then a lot of people, and particularly Republicans, see that as proof of liberal bias.

I genuinely think there is a certain amount of liberal bias. But I think that most of what is going on -- and indeed what was going on in the Dan Rather case, for example, which is Exhibit A for a lot of people -- had more to do with very aggressive coverage of the ruling establishment than with political biases.

You've called for more openness and transparency in the media. Why? What do you mean by that?

I think we in the media have to be much more attentive to how we're regarded by the public. I think we can address that in a number of ways, and one is transparency -- anything that can chip away at this perception that we're these arrogant elitists who don't care about the public.

My own efforts have been starting a blog that tries to address reader criticisms, how I come to do things, and trying to engage the public, including the people who disagree with me, and trying to respond to some e-mails. I can't say it's been terribly successful. There are times when you feel you're making a little bit of progress. It's really an uphill struggle.

What about the press and its reporting of this secret program following [SWIFT} bank transfers and the Bush administration's reaction and condemning of the Times? What is it about this particular exposure that has Mr. Cheney saying he's offended and Mr. Bush saying how wrong it was?

Well, in the case of past disclosures like secret detention camps in Europe or torture at Abu Ghraib or warrantless eavesdropping, there was immediately a debate about the intrinsic merits of what they were doing. It was a little bit hard for the administration in that context to say, "He shouldn't have reported this," because that immediately made them look like they were trying to cover it up.

In the case of the bank transfers, there really wasn't much debate. I think by and large Americans looked at it and thought, "Hmm, kind of makes sense." That made it much easier for the administration therefore to denounce the press for having reported it. I think that there are an awful lot of Americans out there who agreed and who thought the press is out of control again. …

For some 30-odd years, there was this argument that journalistic privilege carried some weight. Now we see journalists being subpoenaed left and right for refusing to reveal their confidential sources. What's changed?

There's been a clear change in the kind of protections that we journalists get. Part of that is courts and prosecutors are being much more aggressive in forcing journalists to disclose sources. But I think it's a mistake to only look at the legal dimension of this.

Fundamentally, our legal rights arise out of a context of public opinion and how we are regarded. The esteem for journalism has fallen. Now, some of the earlier, great constitutional cases that granted First Amendment freedoms -- such as New York Times v. Sullivan [1964], a great libel protection case -- those emerged out of a context where the press was recognized for playing a crucial role in society and encouraging free debate and where reporters were respected for the role that they played.

I don't think that there is nearly the same recognition of that kind of positive role for journalism. So I think that one reason prosecutors go after reporters and toss them in prison is because the public accepts that. The public, in many cases, resents reporters as being arrogant elitists. And I think that we have to worry not only about our precise legal situation, but also about this larger way in which we're perceived. …

I'm from a little town in Oregon. I go back every summer, and I see friends. There really is a resentment at the press, at this liberal Eastern establishment, out there in the heartland. Partly it's because of the values issues, the notion that on questions like abortion, prayer in schools, religion generally and attitudes toward evangelical Christianity, that the press is on a different page from a good chunk of America. Part of it in turn has been just amplified by these kinds of social tensions, and the fact that you have Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly ganging up on The New York Times and on the rest of the press and making it an issue. ...

There is tremendous resentment out there, and that has been manipulated by the administration. But that resentment toward the press is real, and it creates this tinder for any politician to go out and throw matches and try to inflame it. …

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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