Well, okay, if we’re being totally accurate, it’s not the entire New York Times calling for censorship, just Michael Kinsley, Vanity Fair columnist, TV presenter and all-round party guy. And in the NYT Sunday Book Review, of the book No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald on the Edward Snowden affair, Kinsley states:
It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.
I’m sure that Nixon’s ghost must be quietly applauding in the wings. Yes, Kinsley (likely familiar to TeleRead readers from his anti-internet rants) is arguing for an effective government veto on publication. And also he doesn’t appear to like the fact that the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to publications which were conspicuously not the New York Times for their reporting on Snowden and NSA surveillance. “I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorizes newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find,” he complains.
Well, leaving aside the separate issue of press pursuit of state secrets, if something leaks, it’s … ahem … leaked, right? Therefore, in the public domain and no longer secret? Is government supposed to have the right to go after that too? (Well, obviously the UK government thinks so. But in the UK, in America, and elsewhere, there have been quite a few dissenting opinions about that.)
Kinsley has given the language (well, once again, accurately, American usage) the Kinsley gaffe, defined as “when a politician tells the truth,” but also, by Kinsley himself, as “the truth about what he or she is really thinking.” If Kinsley Kinsley-gaffed himself, it’s alarming to think what in fact he is really thinking.
There’s a distinction between censorship, which for secrets has to take place prior to publication, and punishment afterward. After all, if an article is already out, censorship accomplishes nothing.
Censoring beforehand means that the media would have to give the government advanced notice of such stories, so the government could say no. That not only aids in a coverup, it might do nothing. A leak from the government could quickly become a second leak from a U.S. paper to one overseas and beyond the reach of our government. Stories have ways of getting out.
On the other hand, not punishing a newspaper for publishing secrets creates an unfair situation where some individual is punished for giving secret documents to one foreign government (perhaps even a friendly one like Israel), while a newspaper that gives the secret to anyone who bothers to read it isn’t punished. It’s a bit like punishing pickpockets but not bank robbers.
Events often take weird twists. During WWII, a Chicago paper leaked one of the most critical of secrets, that we were reading Japanese codes. The FDR couldn’t prosecute because that would make what was a single passing story more widely known. The Japanese never found out and after the war, no harm having been done, the paper was not prosecuted.