Thursday, May 29, 2014

Michael Kinsley's Mixed-Up Response to Margaret Sullivan

Longtime American political commentator Michael Kinsley was asked to write a review for the New York Times Book Review of "No Place to Hide," former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald's book on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and the NSA itself.

The review has been widely panned, primarily because it made the shocking argument that when it comes to matters of who should decide whether or not a news organization should publish classified government secrets - the government should get the final call.
The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.
Why that is shocking and wrong isn't rocket science: Kinsley is arguing that President Richard Nixon ("the government" in Kinsley's equation) should have had the final say on whether or not the Washington Post (one of those privately owned "newspapers") should have been able to expose the Watergate scandal. (And the Nixon administration tried to have that final say, too: look at John Mitchell's "big fat wringer" remark here.) It is a shocking, absurd argument, made all the more shocking and absurd because it's being made by a journalist, and in the New York Times, a paper that has numerous times over the course of its very long existence published classified documents - against the will of the government - thereby exposing truckloads of government wrongdoing.

The paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, after having gotten an earful from readers, critiqued Kinsley's review, pointing out especially the wrong spoken to above, and Kinsley has now responded to that, in an even more absurd fashion. Sullivan said this:
After the review was published online last week, many commenters and readers (and Mr. Greenwald himself) attacked the review, which was not only negative about the book but [Kinsley] also expressed a belief that many journalists find appalling: that news organizations should simply defer to the government when it comes to deciding what the public has a right to know about its secret activities.
Kinsley responds right off the bat to the "should simply defer":
In her scolding of me and The New York Times Book Review for a review critical of Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place to Hide,” Margaret Sullivan writes that I believe “that news organizations should simply defer to the government” on the issue of making secret documents public. I guess I wasn’t clear (though I don’t know how I could have been clearer). The government sometimes has legitimate reasons for needing secrecy but “will usually be overprotective” so the process of decision “should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay.” Does that sound like I’m saying that news organizations “should simply defer”?
Pay attention to what Kinsley has done here. He has basically said:

• I didn't say news organizations should defer to government—I said government should tilt toward publication.

That's a bit like saying, "I didn't say women should defer to rapists - I'm saying rapists should tilt toward not raping."

Kinsley still has the government making the decision. He still thinks "that decision must ultimately be made by the government." Kinsley's mocking (sneering!) tone might make you think so, but he hasn't in any way refuted Sullivan's charge, since it of course follows that news organizations would have to defer to government if the government made the decision Kinsley granted them against publication of whatever secrets were being argued about.

Government does not—ever—"tilt toward the publication" of government secrets that make government look bad. Kinsley is making a patently absurd argument, one that turns the 1st Amendment on its head, and it deserved the strong rebuke Sullivan, in her position as public editor, gave it.

Kinsley adds a straw man to the mix, as well:
Do the people on the other side of this argument believe that the government never has a legitimate need for secrecy? (Standard example: the time and location of the D-Day invasion.) 
I honestly cannot tell if Kinsley is just mixed up or being insultingly dishonest here. Arguing for the right of American news organizations to do what they have done since the U.S. was founded—publish government secrets that expose government wrongdoing without interference from the government—is not arguing "that the government never has a legitimate need for secrecy." That's either a deliberate disingenuous and innuendo-laden straw man, or Kinsley is simply unable to be coherent on this subject. I almost hope for the former, as one can at least fight that. The latter is just sad.

P.S. Kinsley's "the private companies that own newspapers" remarks is just weird. I suppose he'd be okay with government-owned newspapers making publishing decisions?

Update: Let's note for the record that Kinsley's argument is about government secrets already in the possession of a news organization or organizations—otherwise there would be no argument over who gets publication decision. (A newspaper can't argue to publish secrets it doesn't have.) Slipped into Kinsley's argument is the implication that we're talking about all government secrets, including ones no news organization has or had, or threatens or threatened to publish—such as "the time and location of the D-Day invasion," or similar. This is, again, an insulting and innuendo-laden straw man.

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