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To Release or Not to Release

November 24th, 2009 · 9 Comments

The New York Times is catching flak for declining to post those hacked climate change e-mails, since (ho ho!) they’ve leaked classified information in the past. This strikes me as a rather silly comparison.  In the instance most of the critics are thinking about, the Times got wind of a massive and almost certainly illegal program of domestic spying authorized by the president. They then sat on the story for a year and ultimately published enough information to give the public some sense of what was going on.  I have little doubt there’s plenty more in James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s files that never made it to print. Wild assertions of harm to national security were thrown about, but I never saw anyone adequately explain just how the level of detail in those stories could conceivably have been of benefit to al Qaeda, unless they had somehow been under the impression that the government was making no effort to conduct electronic surveillance on terrorists.  The story was fundamentally a procedural one—of great interest if you care about the Constitution and the rule of law, but of relatively little practical significance for terrorists who could not possibly know whether or not they had been targeted, either by a legitimate FISA warrant or the extrajudicial NSA program.

The instant case involves some 200 megabytes of private correspondence, the vast bulk of which is presumably personal e-mail with no news value whatever, some of the more salacious bits of which appear to consist of academics trash-talking about climate change skeptics, and some very small portion of which may indicate genuine academic malfeasance. This last category should surely be reported to the extent it has implications for public policy. And the Times and other papers have, in fact, published stories about the material. But I’m utterly at a loss as to why anyone thinks this means they ought to just throw the whole 200 megabyte archive up on the Web—where it is, of course, already floating around anyway.  The actually analogous case would be insisting that, on top of reporting the NSA story, the Times should have published operational files containing detailed technical information about interception capabilities and a list of targets under surveillance. The comparison seems so facially ludicrous that I can’t believe anyone making it gave the matter five seconds thought. Is there any real question that 95% of the correspondence in that archive is just private communication of no legitimate public interest? Weighing claims of potential harms to national security—however dubious—about a democratic interest in being informed about domestic surveillance is both necessary and extraordinarily difficult. Weighing the admittedly less pressing claims of academics’ privacy against… what, idle curiosity? Why is that even a question?

Tags: Journalism & the Media



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dom // Nov 25, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I don’t especially care about what the NYT reports. My concern is your belief that 90% of the emails is irrelevant information. Why does that matter?

    If you look at the emails you find that the scientists were demanding that journals not print articles by certain climatologists, such as Patrick Michaels. Then they claimed that their opponents were on such weak ground that can not publish anything? Or consider their attempts to evade FOI requests, while telling everyone that their science was transparent.

    Obviously, email is going to mention such things as birthdays, etc. And NSA files will not have such filler. Hardly important.

  • 2 Dom // Nov 26, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    And the story keeps snow-balling. Now code hacked from CRU shows that the famous Hockey Stick was based, at least in part, on tampered data. And New Zealand is reporting that it’s climate records, used by IPCC, have been distorted to show warming. See http://nzclimatescience.net/images/PDFs/global_warming_nz2.pdf

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Nov 26, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Fine. Any information with genuine news value should be reported. Probably those emails should even be published in full. I have no idea why you imagine this is relevant to the larger question of whether the whole 200 MB cache needs to be published.

  • 4 Dom // Nov 27, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Because that’s not the larger question. A fraud was perpetrated by people who were getting rich from government grants. The recent posts from George Monbiot has it about right, including this:

    “The response of the greens and most of the scientists I know is profoundly ironic, as we spend so much of our time confronting other people’s denial. Pretending that this isn’t a real crisis isn’t going to make it go away. Nor is an attempt to justify the emails with technicalities. We’ll be able to get past this only by grasping reality, apologising where appropriate and demonstrating that it cannot happen again.”

    “… grasping reality …” From someone who once claimed he is from the reality based community. BTW, there is a petition in England for a full government enquiry.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Nov 27, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    So, that’s all well and good, but it’s not what this post was about. If you want to focus on some aspect of the story you think is more important, though, I’m told Blogspot accounts are free.

  • 6 TD // Nov 29, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    But… but… it’s the “MSM”! You know, the “MSM”! It’s dreaded and stuff!

    The “MSM” doesn’t matter anymore, because we have this Army Of Davids™ now and everything, so please just overlook the fact that we obsess so much about it. That doesn’t mean we actually think it matters. Newspapers are dying because they have a lot of liberal bias, you know, not because the Internet has destroyed the ad-revenue model, it’s liberal bias and liberal bias, and blogs do all the real reporting now and don’t you dare say I’m wearing pajamas you buggy whip dinosaur because you can’t put the genie back in the bottle or is it the toothpaste in the tube and LIBERAL BIAS!!11! BUGGY WHIPS

    I wonder what the New York Times has to say about the climate scandal.

  • 7 alkali // Nov 30, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    I don’t disagree, I thought the comparison that was being drawn was with the NYT’s publication of the Pentagon Papers.

  • 8 alkali // Nov 30, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Erratum: insert “however” after the comma

  • 9 Barry // Dec 1, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Julian: “The comparison seems so facially ludicrous that I can’t believe anyone making it gave the matter five seconds thought.”

    IOW, the Volokh Conspiracy bloggers.