Former NY Times Editor Defends Public Knowledge At Chautauqua

CHAUTAUQUA – Today’s journalists must balance the importance of national safety with that of public knowledge.

That’s according to Jill Abramson, who presented the lecture, “The Secrecy Complex and The Press in Post-9/11 America,” Wednesday morning in the Chautauqua Institution amphitheater. This week’s lecture theme is “The Ethics of Privacy.”

Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times and the first female executive editor in the paper’s 160-year history, offered her perspective on the media’s role in privacy issues since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Because I’m not editor at the New York Times anymore I can be more candid about how the press handled these issues,” she said.

Throughout the lecture, she praised Ida Tarbell, former editor of the Chautauquan Daily.

“(I’m) in the tradition of pushy woman journalists that started here at Chautauqua,” she said.

The name that Abramson kept returning to was Edward Snowden – a name she said was often associated with polarizing terms, “hero” or “traitor.”

“The NSA actually has monitored the contents of people’s conversations on the Internet and cellphones,” Abramson said, as she described the sweeping nature of the eavesdropping programs revealed by Snowden.

Because Snowden was aware that the New York Times had a story about the NSA’s warrantless data grabs that was never published, he refused to release his documents to the paper, instead allowing the story to break in the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Abramson said that the Obama administration is the most secretive presidency she encountered as a journalist, which she explained in detail using evidence, including President George W. Bush’s response to 9/11; Obama initiating eight criminal leak investigations against whistleblowers – more than twice the number of investigations ever before initiated; and the secret subpoenas issued to Fox News and the Associated Press last year, which involved the phone records and emails of journalists who were unaware of the subpoenas.

She described how, as an editor, the government was asking for the censorship of certain stories relating to “national safety.” On multiple occasions, Abramson said that the Obama administration would tell her word-for-word, “You will have blood on your hands if you publish this story.”

During these times, Abramson employed what she calls the “balancing tests” – weighing the safety concerns of the government while questioning how pertinent the information is for the public to know.

She said that directly after 9/11, the press, including the New York Times, agreed to Bush’s wishes for censorship regarding details that might put the public at risk – a decision that she didn’t necessarily believe was best in the long-run.

“The country has been more harmed when the press has been censored,” she said.

Among the many topics Abramson spoke of, she also said that in hindsight, she was disappointed with the lack of skepticism that media outlets used when reporting on evidence surrounding Saddam Hussein and the War in Iraq.

“The press let the public down,” she said, noting that the press has since become more aggressive. “In this era … secrets don’t really stay secret for very long.”

Abramson added it is important to remember that journalists are also Americans, and she considers herself a “patriot.”

“Thomas Jefferson and George Washington believed that a free press was the best way to keep the government in check,” she said. “The First Amendment is first for a reason.”

According to Abramson, it is almost a guarantee that the public will be better served by a completely free and open press.

After the lecture, Abramson answered questions by attendees. During her tenure at the New York Times from September 2011 to May 2014, the paper won eight Pulitzer Prizes.