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The Times Says Its Eavesdropping Story Was Held Prior To 2004 Election

Did the New York Times hold its story on the government's eavesdropping program for the 2004 presidential election? That's what Byron Calame, Public Editor for The Times, discovered after following up on the topic with executive editor Bill Keller. When the story was published last December, Keller indicated that the paper had held the story for "a year." Keller, who declined to answer Calame's questions about the story in January, now tells him that the paper had internal discussions about publishing the story on the eve of the 2004 election. Here's part of Calame's take:
Last week Mr. Keller e-mailed me a description of how that picture had changed by December 2005, and it cast some new light on the pre-election situation for me. It implied that the paper's pre-election sources hadn't been sufficiently "well-placed and credible" to convince him that questions about the program's legality and oversight were serious enough to make it "responsible to publish." But by December, he wrote, "We now had some new people who could in no way be characterized as disgruntled bureaucrats or war-on-terror doves saying we should publish. That was a big deal."

Holding a fresh draft of the story just days before the election also was an issue of fairness, Mr. Keller said. I agree that candidates affected by a negative article deserve to have time — several days to a week — to get their response disseminated before voters head to the polls.

So why did the Dec. 16 article say The Times had "delayed publication for a year," specifically ruling out the possibility that the story had been held prior to the Nov. 2 election? "It was probably inelegant wording," Mr. Keller said, who added later, "I don't know what was in my head at the time."

Were the wording and the sensitivity of the election-day timing issue discussed internally? "I don't remember," Mr. Keller said in an interview. He does remember discussing that "I wanted to own up to holding it." And The Times does deserve credit for disclosing that it had held the story.

It was more than inelegant, however, to report flatly that the delay had lasted "a year." Characterizing it as "more than a year," as Mr. Keller and others later did, would have been technically accurate. But that phrase would have represented a fuzziness that Times readers shouldn't have to put up with when a hotly contested presidential election is involved.

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