Lots of folks have sent along links to the New York Times’s new executive editor Dean Baquet’s backstory, spiking an important revelation about national surveillance when he was editor of the LA Times. At Huffington Post, David Bromwich, author of a new book about the political imagination, offers his own deep analysis of the abrupt change in command at the Times in the context of coverage of the national security state. His story is titled After 9/11: The Stories We Tell and the Stories We Don’t.
Consider… the headlines about the sacking of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times. The publisher of the Times, A.O. Sulzberger, said that the reason she was dropped had to do with Abramson’s bad management of the newsroom; and supporting statements adequately testify to her “condescension,” “brusque manner,” and so on — all of which seems credible enough — and yet the same qualities were compatible with a longer run for some of her predecessors.
Meanwhile, there has emerged a rival account, which points out that Abramson recently asked for a salary raise after learning that the male editor who preceded her had received higher pay. This is said to have been the more serious cause of discord; and this, too, sounds credible — but again not really sufficient. There is one clue however, possibly no more telling than the above, which has been oddly neglected in the first round of journalistic motive-hunting.
The national and international stories that loom largest today have emerged from documents supplied to the news media by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden. These documents have turned up facts concerning the ambition and the immense resources deployed by the NSA for the secret surveillance of governments, companies, and private persons. The New York Times has had an increasing connection to those stories, after some documents were transferred to it by the Guardian; and Jill Abramson strongly endorsed the Times connection to the NSA stories. In an interview in January on Al Jazeera, asked whether Snowden was a traitor or a hero, she replied: “I view him, as I did Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as a very good source of extremely newsworthy information.” The Times under Abramson, in short, was not first on the story and it was not second or third, but it did not avoid the controversy the NSA revelations might bring. So much for Abramson; what about her successor, the managing editor Dean Baquet? Forget for a moment the clichés and the public-relations “narratives,” the PC alarm at the sacking the first female editor, muffled by the cool vibe of hiring in her place the first African-American editor. Has Baquet had any relationship to the NSA stories at the New York Times or elsewhere?
In fact, he had an intimate involvement in such a story early in the War on Terror. Documents supplied to the Los Angeles Times by Mark Klein, an AT&T employee troubled by violations of civil liberties, showed that the NSA had constructed a building within the company building and was monitoring internet transactions. Klein and the Los Angeles Times reporter who worked on the story, Joe Menn, were given to understand that theirs was front-page material. Two months passed. The editor of the Los Angeles Times agreed to meet with Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA, and John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence; and after speaking with those officials, the editor killed the story. The editor who did that was Dean Baquet. He said afterward that his choice not to publish had nothing to do with his prior consultation with the highest officials in charge of government surveillance; rather, Baquet just could not see the story in the story — “we did not have a story…we could not figure out what was going on.”
The New York Times disagreed; and in April 2006 Mark Klein’s facts were published, in a story by John Markoff and Scott Shane; four days later, a Times editorial backed the paper’s commitment by posing questions about the legal limits of secret surveillance. After his meeting with Hayden and Negroponte, the facts appeared to Baquet too abstruse for an ordinary mind to digest. Yet a summary by Matthew Guariglia, at an unpretentious site called Heavy.com, made the necessary point in a short sentence yesterday: Klein had discovered “at AT&T, where he worked, that the NSA was installing surveillance rooms and equipment where they could monitor and copy internet traffic.” Markoff and Shane also made a comprehensible summary of the facts Baquet had found mysterious and perplexing. The story was this: the NSA installed at AT&T special surveillance rooms and equipment to capture everyday traffic on the internet. A source and a reporter told it; an editor in Los Angeles seemed to like it and then talked to two government officials and then killed it; an editor in New York found it newsworthy after all and printed it.
As usual, there is a second layer. Abramson, in the months before being sacked, had sought to hire as a second managing editor, alongside Baquet, the editor of the American Guardian, Janine Gibson. Gibson’s sense of the public importance of secret surveillance, to judge by the evidence thus far, is of a different order from Baquet’s.
According to the version we are asked to believe, the initiative by Abramson to hire Gibson enraged Sulzberger and Baquet, because it amounted to an unauthorized reorganization of the managerial hierarchy. So far, so plausible. But was this about nothing but personal pique and a failure of proper consultation? Anyway Baquet is in command at the New York Times now — the paper that ran the NSA story which he killed at the Los Angeles Times — and if Abramson’s sacking was in no way related to her connection with the Snowden stories or a fear of controversy and harassment by government, this can be proved by the courage Baquet displays in following the NSA trail he once helped the government to obscure.