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Propriety in Newsgathering at the New York Times



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Since at least the Pentagon Papers case (and surely before even then), the New York Times has made many a nickel on unauthorized leaks of sensitive national security information. The biggest, though certainly not the only, whopper during the Bush administration was its exposure of the Terrorist Surveillance Program — the NSA wiretapping program targeted at al-Qaeda. With as much self-righteousness as he could muster, executive editor Bill Keller at the time explained that the paper published the leaked information because “we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”

So the “unauthorized disclosure” of classified or sensitive information is not something that the Times generally loses sleep about. Indeed, an editorial in September 2009 trumpeted the fact that “the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe for terrorists and warrantless wiretapping all came to light through the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

But as James Taranto points out in his web briefing today, the newspaper of record applies a different standard to the Climategate scandal at East Anglia University. In a story this week by Elizabeth Rosenthal, the Times asks the “anguished question” of why public opinion seems to be shifting against “climate change” (which used to be called global warming, which used to be called the “greenhouse effect,” as Taranto notes). Rosenthal notes, in particular, that British popular enthusiasm for all things climate-changey has waned in the aftermath of East Anglia. But her description of that scandal is telling:

Here in Britain, the change has been driven by the news media’s intensive coverage of a series of climate science controversies unearthed and highlighted by skeptics since November. These include the unauthorized release of e-mail messages from prominent British climate scientists at the University of East Anglia that skeptics cited as evidence that researchers were overstating the evidence for global warming and the discovery of errors in a United Nations climate report.

New York Times alum Andrew Revkin, who blogs for the Times now, recently noted a similar concern regarding “the unauthorized release of some climate researchers’ email messages and files.” Perhaps the Times is turning a corner, and we can expect similar concerns to be raised whenever they root out classified government information that may — oh, I don’t know — result in the loss of American lives.



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