The New York Times’ top lawyer spoke to students Thursday about his 30-year career helping the paper improve its coverage of sensitive stories, from the 2010 WikiLeaks scandal to Donald Trump’s tax records.
Kenneth Richieri, who has worked on The New York Times legal counsel team since 1983, joined Pierson Head of College Stephen Davis GRD ’98 to discuss Richieri’s experience in First Amendment law. The discussion addressed past conflicts between a free press and America’s national security as well as the Times’ objectivity covering the 2016 presidential race.
“At the end of the day the legal concerns and the journalistic concerns are different,” Richieri said during the talk. “They intersect on the goal of having truthful and accurate information of the public importance.”
Richieri explained that his job at the helm of the Times’ legal counsel is to ensure stories published in the Times are legally defensible, or “bulletproof,” under the First Amendment and international law, as well as to verify that stories meet the paper’s standard of accuracy. As general counsel, Richieri reviews around 10 articles per week that may potentially have legal implications when published, he said.
For example, an Oct. 1 story suggested that Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump may have avoided paying federal-income tax for nearly two decades, according to his tax records. For Richieri, printing the tax records did not present a difficult legal question. Instead, Richieri said it was far more difficult for the journalists writing the story to confirm whether these tax records — which the Times received through an anonymous source — were credible.
Another memorable story that raised legal concerns cropped up in 2010 when the watchdog organization WikiLeaks released to the Times nearly 100,000 confidential documents about U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Richieri said the legal implications of running such a story were complex.
“The Afghanistan ones were actually the most difficult,” said Richieri, referring to the WikiLeaks documents. “In that case there was a little more coordination. Those cases relied on the Times to vet for national security issues [in deciding] what we were going to publish.”
Richieri and his colleagues consulted a liaison from the U.S. State Department on the potential for damage to national security in publishing the leaks.
Later in the talk, he discussed the Times’ coverage of the current election cycle, which he said has led some readers to criticize the Times as a biased “East Coast urban paper.” Richieri said this election has put the Times in a double bind — whether to publish consistent serious stories or to allow sources like Trump to dictate the tone of the coverage. Times reporters often feel their standards of objectivity conflict with standards of etiquette, Richieri added.
Although Richieri is not on the Times’ editorial board, he has a firsthand experience of the challenges faced by journalists covering the presidential race.
“It’s very difficult for the Times in its tradition to cover Donald Trump right, because we generally try to provide both sides of an issue and the assumption is, within a presidential campaign, that the issues are going to be serious,” Richieri said.
Davis, who invited Richieri to speak in Pierson, said after the talk that he did so because Richieri could speak to a wide range of student interests, from journalism and law to politics and national security. Additionally, Davis said Richieri’s comments touched on both the presidential election and the current student discussions on campus regarding free speech and inclusivity.
Jacky Fung ’20 said after the talk that he found it interesting to hear Richieri talk about the threshold between national security and the public’s need to know crucial information.
“We have competing rights that these journalists have to think about, and I think it’s a very interesting perspective,” Fung added.
Alex Rivkin ’20 said he was surprised by Rivieri’s candor. Rivkin added that he was impressed by Richieri’s career and valued the opportunity to get insight into the intersection of law and journalism.
Richieri has never lost a libel case while working for the Times, he said.