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Decision To Hold A Story Is Rarely An Easy Call

(AP / CBS)
The debate continues to rage over the decision by The New York Times and others to publish details of the government's bank monitoring program. The passionate argument brings to mind two recent examples at CBS News that are worth revisiting to get some idea of how the balance between the public's right to know and security issues are handled.

Pentagon correspondent David Martin told Public Eye last February about a story he didn't run after defense officials argued that the story could help the enemy in Iraq. Here's how Martin explained the decision back then:

This week I killed a story about the battle against Improvised Explosive Devices after a senior military officer told me it contained information that would be helpful to the enemy. I didn't find his argument about how it would help the enemy very persuasive, but because there's a war on I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I've done that a number of times over the years, and each time it's turned out that going with the story wouldn't have caused any harm. It's always a difficult decision, made more difficult by the fact that it always seems to happen late in the day when you're under deadline pressure.
In a follow-up post, Martin addressed critics of his decision and explained his reasoning in detail. Martin also provided an example of a story he didn't hold:
The same week I killed the story on IEDs, I did a story on new photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, photos the Pentagon had gone to court in an effort to keep secret, arguing that their publication could lead to violence against American soldiers. I found that a stretch, and I had no qualms about doing the story. Why does one seem like an attempt to suppress a bad news story and the other seem like a concern for legitimate secrecy? Like I said, you know it when you see it. But it was a close call, and I can understand why some people would think it was the wrong call.
In January, the CBS "Evening News" carried a report by correspondent Jim Stewart about FBI advances which helped determine the origins of some IEDs being used against U.S. troops in Iraq. Stewart's report included these lines: "At the request of the FBI, CBS News has agreed not to report specific findings about the reconstructed devices. The FBI expressed concerns to CBS that revealing such details might compromise ongoing operations and jeopardize the safety of US personnel in Iraq." Public Eye spoke with Stewart and others about that decision:
The FBI, he [Stewart] explained, subsequently objected to the level of detail CBS News planned to include in the report. The bureau argued that if CBS were to disclose certain facts, it could lead those who make the explosives to alter their methods, "potentially allowing these people to remain free and continue their work killing American men and women," as Stewart put it.

It was a "convoluted argument," said Stewart, "but a valid argument." The decision about whether or not to keep the specific details out of the report ultimately fell to Stewart, "Evening News" anchor Bob Schieffer, CBS News president Sean McManus, and "Evening News" executive producer Rome Hartman.

"We did not get into a situation of negotiating details of what was in the story, but we heard their concerns," said Hartman. The debate between the four men about how to proceed, he said, was "lively" and "spirited," but in the end the decision not to air certain details was "fairly straightforward." It grew, he said, out of "our responsibility as citizens and as journalists."

Both are interesting looks behind the scenes at how these issues have been handled at CBS News in recent months and are worth a full read as this debate continues.