The cost of secrets

In early August, Bill Keller of the New York Times (where he was executive editor for eight years) wrote an op-ed examining the role of leaks between government sources and U.S. newspapers. Keller reflects on a 1971 deposition made by Max Frankel, who defended the newspaper's role in releasing The Pentagon Papers:

 “… [Without leaks] there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington, and there could be no mature system of communication between the government and the people.”

Borrowing a phrase from Alexander Bickel, who was the chief counsel for the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, Keller notes that this kind of reporting requires "forebearance and continence". Keller cautions that "We live in a time of zero-sum politics, where trust is scarce and compromise is perilous, and where the hamster-wheel news cycle puts no special value on reflection."

Keller's piece opens with the observation that the Obama administration "already surpassed all previous administrations in its prosecution of leakers". This reminded me of a post I wrote in late 2010, when Wikileaks first came on the scene. At the time, I noted:

"In this era, strengthening the current rules and emphasizing enforcement at the cost of the Constitution are popular options, but I have another idea.  Maybe we could work on having fewer secrets."

Keller's work made me think of another way to look at newspapers and leaks. Secrets challenge the notion of an open and freely elected government. Governments can recognize the useful role that newspapers play in advocating for the prudent declassification of such information, and newspapers can act responsibly to protect information when doing so serves a greater good.

Absent an agreement to work with "forebearance and continence", governments start to look like data sources with bad APIs. We all know the consequence of a bad API.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.