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'Times' Held Story on U.S. Surveillance for a Year

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now to help answer some journalistic questions raised by this story we're joined by NPR's media reporter David Folkenflik.

David, The New York Times had sat on this story for about a year before it went to press. What do we know about why they held on? Why did they wait so long?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Well, this is a sign of the seriousness with which the executive editor and other senior figures of The Times took the objections of the government. The government said this could tend to harm the ability of the government to do counterterrorism inquiries and investigations; it might compromise their operations. And The Times held off. I might say that this is also something that's sparked significant debate within The Times. In fact, there was a push to get this in print by reporters involved.

The government also tried to assure senior editors, and they accepted this argument, that, quote, "A variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved at the program, raised no legal questions." That's from a statement that was issued this afternoon by executive editor Bill Keller. When you think about it, a year is an extraordinary amount of time. You know, children have been conceived and born in that time. And it means that editors had decided to sit on this for that time. In the meantime, it meant that The times had accepted the notion that if this was legal that it was OK for them not to report on it. You know, the old saw in some ways is that sometimes the scandal is what's legal in Washington, not what's against the law.

BLOCK: In other words, if the executive order were legal?

FOLKENFLIK: That's correct.

BLOCK: There was also some language in the story today about things that they agreed not to include, right?

FOLKENFLIK: The Times indicated in the text of its story and again later that it had decided to withhold certain technical information which might tend to compromise the ability of agents to do that. They were again signaling that they took seriously the national security concerns of the government in doing that.

BLOCK: And, very briefly David, The Times is not allowing the reporters who wrote this story to speak to the press. Why not?

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. They've hunkered down. They have not made clear why that's the case. They say the story should speak for itself but also that they have tried to balance national security and journalistic imperatives.

BLOCK: David, thanks a lot.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

BLOCK: NPR media reporter David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.