The Press, Violating the Public’s Right Not to Know
On Sunday, January 22, 2006, the Washington Post’s front page announced that the U.S. had spent 1.9 million dollars to bolster the governing Fatah faction’s image with Palestinian voters and give the moderate party a boost in competing with the terrorist faction Hamas in the upcoming elections.
On Wednesday, January 25, a tight election gave Hamas a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, a catastrophe of epic proportions for the Palestinians, Israel, the Middle East, the US, and the world.
It would stretch credulity to argue that these two events were not connected. The Post’s decision to reveal U.S. attempts to influence the Palestinian election almost certainly played a significant role in shifting a critical mass of votes to Hamas. Moreover, the Post had to know that the timing of its story could have such a result. Why would the paper run it?
Why, because that’s a journalist’s job, it would reply. Because the paper was reporting the truth, and the truth shall set us free. Because a paper only reports the facts, and it is unethical for it to withhold a story simply to avoid affecting events. Because the public has a right to know.
To be fair, the Scoreboard is only speculating on the Post’s response, based on many years of reading and listening to journalist-speak on the glories of the news beat. Perhaps the Post would say that it ran the story because it really wanted Hamas to win. Or because, hey! We’re the Washington Damn Post and we can do anything we like, thanks to the First Amendment, and sometimes we’re irresponsible just because there’s not a thing anybody can do about it! But we’re giving the Post the benefit of the doubt, and presuming that it genuinely thought it was doing the right thing.
Well, the Washington Damn Post was wrong. There are some things the public has a right not to know, and this was one of them. The United States, the Post must be aware, is waging a war against Middle East terrorism in which the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a critical factor. Secret efforts to increase the chances that a vicious terrorist organization does not gain political control of the Palestinians are as much a tactic in the war as troop maneuvers, intelligence gathering, and bombing. To be effective, these efforts obviously had to remain secret, because the reaction of the Palestinian public to a foreign power attempting to affect its elections would predictably be the same as that of American voters if Osama Bin Laden had come out before our elections with an endorsement of John Kerry. (What’s that? He did??)
But this is not the time to be applying Golden Rule ethical standards. In wartime, utilitarian values take over, and the spending of 1.9 million dollars to ensure that a radically militant party with the official position that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map doesn’t gain political power is well within any rational margins of ethical conduct.
If the Post applied utilitarian principles, what legitimate factors would have gone into the balance? On one side, the Post would have to consider the value to its readers of learning about the US program as soon as possible but what was that value? Would it change anything we did? Were there actions we would take once we know about it? It might affect our opinions about the administration or its conduct of the war, but if we thought the program was a good idea (and it was a very good idea), it’s more than a little ironic for the same report that would prompt our approval to simultaneously undermine the program we now approved of. On the same side of the scale, I suppose the Post would also place its longtime position that it was doing some kind of public service by automatically publishing sensitive information anonymously conveyed to it by individuals willfully violating their professional duties of confidentiality for questionable motives.
Tradition counts for something.
What would have been on the other side of the utilitarian balance? Oh, not much just
Is this really a hard choice, or any kind of choice at all?
If the Post had stumbled upon the plans for Operation Overlord right before D-Day in 1944, would it have published a front page story that the planned invasion of France by the Allies was not going to occur at Cherbourgh as the Germans assumed, but at Normandy, in the middle of a storm. Did the public have a right to know that? Would the public want to know it, if it meant that the German army would be able to repel the invasion?
If that analogy seems excessive, then let’s imagine that the administration of Herbert Hoover had the foresight to realize what was in store for the world if the Nazis prevailed in Germany’s elections in 1930. Let us also imagine that Hoover installed a program to secretly bolster Hitler’s opponents leading up to the election, and the Washington Post got wind of it. Should the paper have published it, guaranteeing Hitler’s party’s success at the ballot box? Hamas and Hitler’s views on the welfare of Jews are startlingly similar.
A free press is only as beneficial as the wisdom of the people running it. Managing information and conveying the news irequires more thoughtful analysis than that provided by simple bumper sticker slogans like “the people have a right to know.” The press should be able to recognize and act responsibly when they encounter the special circumstances when the public’s “knowing” about something is less important than the damage that will result from releasing the information.
The public has a right not to know, when withholding information is likely to benefit the country and save lives. The press is supposed to be working for us, not against us. It is frightening that it does not appear to be able to understand the distinction.