Watch CBSN Live

Decision To Hold Some Stories Is An Easy Call – Isn't It?

The furor over The New York Times' decision to publish information on the U.S. government's financial-tracking program has died down – for the moment. One certainly gets the feeling the issue of publishing sensitive information will return with a vengeance at some point in the near future, so you may want to check out an op-ed in today's Washington Post. Written by Michael J. Berlin, a former United Nations reporter for the Post and the New York Post, the piece recalls one specific instance when the media as a whole collectively decided not to publish information it had after being asked not to by government officials.

Berlin tells us that in 1979, when Islamic militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and captured hostages, a large group of U.S. and Canadian journalists obtained information that six Americans had evaded capture and were being protected by Canadian diplomats. Once the American fugitives were smuggled out of Iran, media organizations broke the story with all the details of the drama. Here's how Berlin describes the atmosphere in 1979:

Toward the end of 1979, hundreds of American and Canadian journalists and news organizations got hold of a dynamite news story that would have made personal reputations and careers and sent circulation or broadcast ratings soaring. The facts were confirmed, unassailably. Any one of these reporters could have had the scoop of a lifetime.

And yet not one reporter, newspaper, network or newsletter ran with the story until given permission to do so (all at once) by the governments involved. No court or governmental threat of retribution forced them to do so. It was all voluntary.

For more than two months the news industry did not even hint at an adventure that the public would have been eager to know about, a tale complete with heroes, victims, villains and hair-raising suspense. Today, as news media have revealed secret programs of the Bush administration, the questions are being asked: Can journalists keep a secret? Should they? Are news media capable of drawing the line between revelations that would be too damaging to national security interests and those necessary to safeguard American democracy and constitutionally protected rights?

This appears to have been a clear case in which the publication of this information would have immediately put six American lives at risk. Complaints about the details which the New York Times has decided to publish exist in a more gray area in terms of the balance between security and the public's right to know. Still, Berlin seems skeptical about whether the media can even recognize the clear-cut decisions any longer:
Do I think that a thousand reporters could be trusted today to make the same call that we did in 1979? I wonder. Even back then, there was the fear that some rogue reporter would ignore the pleas and go with the story. In today's journalism world, I fear that some blogger or counterculture ideologue using journalism as a political tool rather than as a mechanism for dispensing straight information, would make the wrong call. I hope I'm wrong about that.