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The New York Times' public editor, Byron Calame, publishes a startling admision from Bill Keller regarding the publication delay of the most explosive story in his short reign as managing editor. Earlier, when Keller told people that the NSA surveillance story got delayed from December 2004 based on requests from the White House, speculation circulated that the story had actually gotten shelved before the presidential election. Now Calame confirms that Keller lied about the publication history of the Lichtblau/Risen effort:
THE NEW YORK TIMES’S Dec. 16 article that disclosed the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping has led to an important public debate about the once-secret program. And the decision to write about the program in the face of White House pressure deserved even more praise than I gave it in a January column, which focused on the paper’s inadequate explanation of why it had “delayed publication for a year.”
The article, written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, has been honored with a Pulitzer and other journalistic prizes. But contradictory post-publication comments by Times editors and others about just how long the article was held have left me increasingly concerned about one key question: Did The Times mislead readers by stating that any delay in publication came after the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election?
In my January column, in which I refused to rely on anonymous sources, I noted that I was left “puzzled” by the election question. But I have now learned from Bill Keller, the executive editor, that The Times delayed publication of drafts of the eavesdropping article before the 2004 election. This revelation confirms what anonymous sources had told other publications such as The Los Angeles Times and The New York Observer in December.
In fact, the Keller/Calame interview seems very strange indeed. Keller refused to answer this question in January, and in fact refused to answer any of Calame's questions regarding the timing of the publication. Calame followed up this week, and despite Keller's insistence that the story was now "old news", agreed to sit down with his public editor -- and then confessed he had lied all along.
Left-wing pundits and bloggers have insisted that Keller spiked the story to keep George Bush in office. Keller, however, has a different take on his decision. He insists that the news would have likely helped Bush rather than hurt him, and the public support for this program after its delayed revelation last December supports that analysis. John Kerry and the Democrats had castigated Bush for the lack of visible effort to find and track terrorists, and the program's exposure would have forced Kerry to recant and suddenly argue that Bush had been too enthusiastic about fighting terrorism, a tough pirouette to execute in a grueling presidential campaign.
In the end, the final version of the story got prepared just days before the election, and Keller argues that a release at that point would have been "unfair" to all parties. It took several weeks for all of the political dust to settle once the article did come out. He may have a point, but then two related events took place: he delayed the release for over a year, and then Keller lied about the timing when he published it.
Calame asked Keller why he lied, although Calame didn't quite put it that way. Keller says he used "inelegant" wording in his description, but clearly Keller wanted to keep that information secret. Besides, Keller's job as editor depends on his use of words and the judgement of what and how to communicate. It's clear that Keller wanted to keep people from learning that he had the chance to publish this before the election, and he deliberately did not. Why lie? He depends on the Left for his readership, and his reluctance to publish the article when Bush was vulnerable will likely lose his readership.
Keller has destroyed what's left of his paper's credibility. He lied to everyone about the timing of this publication, baldly and publicly. It also damages the credibility of everyone associated with this story. After all, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau certainly knew that the story was ready before the November 2nd election -- and yet they chose to play along with Keller's lies that the decision to spike it was in December 2004 rather than October and November.
The Paper of Record managed to utterly destroy the trust it still had left with readers across the political spectrum with this story.
UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers! And you may want to ask yourself this, as one CQ commenter did -- what else has the Times lied about?Sphere It View blog reactions
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