A couple of weeks ago, my Missourian colleague, Dave Rosman, penned a thoughtful column lamenting a perceived reputation of the press for lack of truth and trustworthy reporting. There is yet another area in which the press, in its zeal to keep the public informed, often crosses the line in balancing the right to know against the need to know.
Admittedly, that is a fine line, one upon which there is disagreement and lively discourse among various media entities as well as with the public. I find the answer by asking this question: "Does the purpose served by the reporting rise to such magnitude as to outweigh the individual personal consequence or, in extreme cases, the very real danger posed by its publishing?"
For example, our two daily newspapers chose to report the resignation of Deputy Police Chief Tom Dresner, citing an affair with a subordinate. Initially announced as a routine retirement, it was later learned that Dresner had approached Police Chief Ken Burton to reveal the affair and that the chief subsequently asked for the deputy chief's resignation.
In the determination of what constitutes "all the news that's fit to print," I find myself siding with Police Chief Burton and obviously at odds with the reporting community. An internal situation, it was effectively solved "in house" to spare the innocent undue pain and humiliation. Perhaps I am naive, but I fail to see why a purely personal matter fits the public's "right to know."
I don't know how or why this was exposed, nor do I particularly care. In no way did it affect the public safety or the day-to-day operations of the Columbia Police Department. If one is interested in the foibles of the rich and famous, the select and the ordinary, or merely rumor and innuendo, there are always the tabloids located at grocery store checkout lines.
The other, and far more serious, example involves the WikiLeaks cables and subsequent publication of the data by The New York Times, Germany's Der Spiegel, England's Guardian, France's Le Monde and Spain's El País. WikiLeaks' founder, Australian national Julian Assange, with the assistance of a military intelligence analyst (Pfc. Bradley Manning), has released volumes of classified military and State Department documents to the above media.
In releasing this information, Mr. Assange has made no secret of his objective, that of causing damage to the United States, which he considers a criminal nation for waging war. As is the norm, he has incurred the undivided praise of the antiwar minions along with condemnation of the leadership of those nations whose soldiers and national security have been placed in harm's way.
Proclaiming the right of the public to know the details of government, the left has hailed WikiLeaks as a triumph of data journalism — that the disclosure of these documents constitutes a public service. However, just who gets to determine the public's right or need to know?
In this instance, is it the Defense or State departments, where the documents were prepared, analyzed and classified? Or, does Mr. Assange of WikiLeaks have carte blanche for disclosure? Or, has that responsibility been ceded to The New York Times? Realistically, while the ACLU, the city and campus of Berkeley, et al. may dissent, it is an absolute certainty that a majority prefers the president over Mr. William Keller of The New York Times in deciding what is to be declassified.
As an example of The New York Times' editorial "impartiality," I offer this from WSJ.com's "Best of the Web" of Nov. 29 regarding Climategate e-mails from Nov. 20, 2009, that appeared in The New York Times: "These documents appear to have been obtained illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements never intended for the public eye, so they won't be posted here." WikiLeaks, Nov. 29, 2010, New York Times: "The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match." Illegality is in the eyes of the beholder?
The Espionage Act of 1917 makes it a criminal offense to disclose information relating to the national defense to any person not entitled to receive it, a law Pfc. Manning and Mr. Assange have obviously violated. Further, the self-serving notion, owing largely to precedent, that journalists may publish what they please is hardly concrete. While no news outlet has faced criminal charges to date, there is nothing in the Espionage Act granting them a pass.
Finally, although the American press does publish classified material, often recklessly, it is difficult to prove, or even believe, it operates in bad faith or with criminal intent. But, in some manner, that fine line between "right to know" and "need to know" must be better defined and understood by both the producer and the herald. When national security and human lives are at risk, any right to know is trumped by the common sense of need to know.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.