The U.S. media has turned a spotlight on itself after three news organizations admitted keeping the location of a drone base in Saudi Arabia secret at the request of the U.S. administration.
The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press this week acknowledged withholding the information since 2011, provoking harsh criticism from media watchers and fellow reporters - even their own.
Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at The Times, said the newspaper “ought to be reporting as much and as aggressively as possible” on the drone program, which has never been officially acknowledged.
“If it was ever appropriate to withhold the information, that time was over. The drone program needs as much sunlight as possible.”
Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple wrote that there are “good reasons to stiff the government’s request for intelligence complicity.”
Wemple said the construction of a drone base “is simply news in and of itself” and that The New York Times “acted responsibly” by backing out of the deal and publishing the news.
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist on civil liberties and U.S. national security issues for the British newspaper The Guardian, said the case was the latest in a series in which key media colluded with officials in Washington.
“Yet again, the U.S. media has been caught working together to conceal obviously newsworthy government secrets," he wrote.
“The excuses for concealing this information are frivolous.”
The Washington Post said it “refrained from disclosing the location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an Al-Qaeda affiliate.”
The Post said it decided to publish the news after learning that “another news organization” was planning to reveal the location, “effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.”
Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford said the organization “on rare occasions withholds information when officials offer a compelling argument that the information could imperil national security or specific individuals.”
“When the location of the base was made public Tuesday night, the AP felt national security concerns no longer applied and published the location,” Colford said in a statement.
Complicating the story was the fact that the location of the drone base was reported in 2011 by The Times of London and by Fox News.
The news was revealed as the architect of the U.S. drone war against Al-Qaeda, John Brennan, faced a grilling in Congress over his nomination to lead the CIA.
Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor, said that because the news was previously reported, the actions by the news outlets could be seen as an unhealthy collusion.
“It makes it look like they are playing footsie with the administration in a way that is totally improper for an independent press,” Kennedy told AFP.
Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said the national security argument now appears specious in view of the decision by The Times to publish the information.
“The reasoning by The Times that it had to give the location because of political considerations – Brennan’s candidacy for the CIA - undermines the case for justifying not naming the location in the first place,” Ward said.
“If these news outlets accepted the argument, in the past, that naming the location would directly threaten American national interests, it would seem to also override naming the location because of Brennan's candidacy.”
Ben Jacobs of the media watchdog website Daily Download was skeptical of the claim that keeping the secret was a matter of national security.
“Reporters should be careful to discern when the government doesn’t want something published because it genuinely endangers national security or simply to prevent embarrassment,” he wrote.
The drone program remains a major story and has only intensified with the Brennan nomination.
The New York Times said it is pursuing its lawsuit seeking the legal justification for the drone killings of U.S. citizens and others.
And the Washington Post argued that the administration should make details of the program public.
“If there is a compelling case for all of this secrecy, the administration has not made it,” a Post editorial said.
“While the administration’s drone war against Al-Qaeda is legal, its increasingly shaky political and diplomatic grounding would be strengthened if the administration were to disclose its justifications and allow them to be debated and ratified by Congress.”