Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Naming Names: Echoes of Valerie Plame

In a piece by its Public Editor, the New York Times acquits itself of endangering the interrogator of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, by naming him while describing how he successfully extracted information through psychological means rather than "rough stuff."

The Times defense (the public's right to know, the impaired credibility of a story without the name of a key character, the decision that he would not be in any greater danger than "scores of others who have been identified in the news media for their roles in the war against Al Qaeda") bookends all the outrage over the outing of Valerie Plame as a covert operative by a vengeful Bush Administration.

Granted the huge gap in motives, what the incidents have in common is the question of protecting people who do dangerous work for all of us. Would readers have been deprived of crucial information by withholding the name of the interrogator any more than they were by being unaware of Valerie Plame's identity?

Doesn't identifying him undermine the point of the story by making it unlikely that he could continue to do what the Times obviously judged to be important work for national security?

What gives the Times the right to override the subject's fears by making its own judgment about "the potential harm in naming an honorable public servant?" (Part of the lame defense is using his nickname rather his actual given name.)

"I understand," the Public Editor concludes, "how readers can think that if there is any risk at all, a person...should never be identified. But going in that direction, especially in this age of increasing government secrecy, would leave news organizations hobbled when trying to tell the public about some of the government’s most important and controversial actions."

Incidents like this may encourage readers to wonder how serious the MSM are in their dedication to "the public's right to know" rather than their own aggrandizement and self-importance.

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