I was interested, a few days after the start of the Cablegate release, to receive an email from Max Frankel, who had overseen the defence of the New York Times in the Pentagon papers case 40 years earlier. Now 80, he sent me a memo he had then written to the New York Times public editor. It is worth quoting as concise and wise advice to future generations who may well have to grapple with such issues more in future:
- My view has almost always been that information which wants to get out will get out; our job is to receive it responsibly and to publish or not by our own unvarying news standards.
- If the source or informant violates his oath of office or the law, we should leave it to the authorities to try to enforce their law or oath, without our collaboration. We reject collaboration or revelation of our sources for the larger reason that ALL our sources deserve to know that they are protected with us. It is, however, part of our obligation to reveal the biases and apparent purposes of the people who leak or otherwise disclose information.
- If certain information seems to defy the standards proclaimed by the supreme court in the Pentagon papers case ie that publication will cause direct, immediate and irreparable damage we have an obligation to limit our publication appropriately. If in doubt, we should give appropriate authority a chance to persuade us that such direct and immediate danger exists (see our 24-hour delay of discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba as described in my autobiography, or our delay in reporting planes lost in combat until the pilots can perhaps be rescued).
- For all other information, I have always believed that no one can reliably predict the consequences of publication. The Pentagon papers, contrary to Ellsberg’s wish, did not shorten the Vietnam war or stir significant additional protest. A given disclosure may embarrass government but improve a policy, or it may be a leak by the government itself and end up damaging policy. “Publish and be damned,” as Scotty Reston used to say; it sounds terrible but as a journalistic motto it has served our society well through history.
There have been many longer treatises on the ethics of journalism which have said less.