The Press: Freedom From, as well as Of

In an address at Montclair State College (N.J.) on May 29, the president and publisher of The New York Times remarked that “there is nothing wrong with anyone…speaking out vigorously when they [sic] think our facts are wrong or our opinions wrongheaded.” But where, Mr. Sulzberger, can he, or they, speak out? For the Times is virtually without competition. Nor is it noted for its hospitality to those who “think [its] facts are wrong.” Mr. Sulzberger went on to defend our “unfettered press” to the extent of rejecting “various proposals within the journalistic community” that “press councils” “monitor” and “correct” its “performance.” But why? Should the press be above correction when in error? Does the correcting of the press’s facts necessarily “fetter” it?

Mr. Sulzberger is talking about the Pentagon Papers, of course. But his account of how the Times acts in such cases is anything but reassuring. He asks, fairly enough, “Who are [we] to decide what ought to be secret and not secret, to put [our] own judgment over a properly elected government…?” But his answer is alarming in the extreme. “Either we, acting as responsibly as we know how, had to decide, or the government had to decide.” As responsibly as we know how? But what principles, what dictates determine the Times‘s “responsibility” and form its “know how”? And do they amount to any more than one person’s “inner voice” versus another’s? Isn’t it, in fact, Kierkegaard’s question of rival governments? “While insisting that the process of government ought to be public, the press sets the seal of secrecy on its own purposes, this in order to secure the powers of government for itself…for which it also attempts to secure for itself the secrecy without which it is impossible to govern.”

What concerns me here are the press’s “powers of government,” especially its immunity and its disregard for privacy. Not, of course, on the level of “national security” (to which the greatest threat, it seems to me, is the Pentagon itself; and about which the Times acted in the public interest). My experience is specialized and limited. Not long ago I ventured to correct the Times for what I termed an irresponsible article. I did so in these columns by exposing a large number of errors and improbabilities. But the Times does not accept correction. And as it could find no means of defending the errors I exposed, but still had to save face, it resorted to that favorite tactic of political campaigners, the excavation of the possibly discrediting “story.”

To accomplish this, the newspaper employed the very reporter whose first article had been demolished. But surely The New York Times could have put together a more “sophisticated weapon” than Mr. Henahan. To begin with, he should have been able to unearth a better tale than the one on which he wasted his Sunday sermon of May 7. Especially since it took him so long to do …

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Letters

Stravinsky’s Obituary July 20, 1972