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On Letters And Numbers

As Editor & Publisher informs us, the editors of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were given the chance to sign onto the joint July 1 op-ed by Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet and New York Times editor Bill Keller defending their newspapers' decision to publish details of a government program monitoring international banking transactions – and they chose not to.

The news is being greeted by some bloggers as a rebuke to the LA Times and NY Times. Writes National Review Online's Stephen Spruiell: "… if the Bush administration had truly declared war on the press, don't you think these major newspaper editors would have joined out of solidarity? I think their decision to pass indicates that Keller and Baquet's attempt to make this a First Amendment issue was nothing more than a distraction intended to deflect legitimate criticism."

I think there are legitimate arguments against the newspapers' decision to publish, but I find this logic puzzling. If one reads the article, it becomes clear that the WSJ passed because Managing Editor Paul Steiger felt his paper was in an entirely different position that the LA Times or NY Times. "We had talked about doing something together," Steiger told Joe Strupp, "but when I looked at it and thought about it, our position was so different from theirs -- that nobody asked us not to publish [our story] -- it was a totally different case." And WP Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said he declined to sign on to signal his paper's independence. "I was asked if I was interested in being involved with several editors about this and I declined," he said. "I think one of the important things about American journalism is that each newspaper operates on its own and I didn't want to join in a group situation."

Unless you think that Steiger and Downie are trying to mislead about their true intentions here to cover the fact that they were actually trying to signal some sort of disagreement with Baquet and Keller – and I think that's a pretty tough case to make – then you have to accept that you can't extrapolate all that much from E&P's report.