The New York Times has long been a vocal advocate for press freedom, and on Monday, Times executive editor Bill Keller brought that debate to campus.
Keller affirmed the resolution that “The Press has a Duty to Expose Government Secrets” at a Yale Political Union meeting Monday evening. The debate was the third of the semester for the YPU.
In July 2006, Keller co-authored an editorial with Dean Baquet, then-editor of the Los Angeles Times, entitled “When do we Publish a Secret?” in response to both newspapers’ disclosure of a covert Bush administration program to track international banking records. In 2005, Keller signed off on a story about Bush’s secret authorization of NSA eavesdropping aimed at fighting terrorism, after waiting a year to publish the story.
In his speech, Keller recognized that these decisions are difficult, especially given journalists’ goal of impartiality. But he argued that the public’s right to know can outweigh the costs of publishing sensitive information.
“How do we, as editors, reconcile the obligation to inform with the instinct to protect?” Keller asked. “If a war is being waged in America’s name, shouldn’t Americans understand how it is being waged?”
He also suggested that reporters could make editorial decisions easier by negotiating with sources beforehand and being more selective about the use of unnamed sources.
Keller’s speech elicited heated questions from audience members about how to gauge the benefits of publishing against the sensitivity of the government’s activity — and about the perceived liberal bias of the New York Times.
After the question-and-answer session, members of the YPU’s seven parties gave their own speeches for and against the resolution.
Nicola Karras ’10, a member of the Independent Party, disagreed with where Keller drew the line when deciding whether or not to publish.
“If faced with a trade-off between liberty and security, [the editors] ought to err on the side of security,” Karras said.
While Adam Hirst ’10 of the Conservative Party pointed out that the media acts as a check against the government, Frederick Mocatta ’10 of the Tory Party said the media itself needs to be held more accountable. He advocated the creation of a “press complaint submission board” to monitor the activity of the media.
Before members of the audience were invited to give undocketed speeches, Aaron Bray ’10 of the Party of the Left gave the final formal address, supporting Keller’s view of the press’ responsibility to the public.
“As journalists, we have more access to knowledge, and therefore we have a duty to make the public privy to that same knowledge,” Bray said.
Bray is a staff reporter for the News.
Many students said they found Keller’s speech provocative and stimulating.
Dan Stone ’11 said he was surprised by Keller’s caution in delaying publication of the wiretapping story.
“You often hear of the media being portrayed as the bad guy. It was really interesting to hear the press defend its decisions and to learn about when it withholds information for the public’s interests,” Stone said.
Keller’s presence on the front lines of the debate over press freedom and security was one of the reasons why the YPU invited him to speak, YPU President April Lawson ’09 said.
“Given that the New York Times is probably the most important newspaper in the country, Bill Keller can offer a very unique perspective on this issue and on any issue involving the media,” Lawson said.
Keller, who joined the Times in 1984 and earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his coverage of the Soviet Union, is one of many prominent guests to speak at YPU debates this year, including David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, and Akhil Amar, a well-known professor at the Yale Law School.
Next week, the YPU will sponsor its Freshman Prize Debate, which will give freshmen the chance to compete for a cash prize.