The New York Times Has Held Stories for Political Reasons Before

James Risen, the same New York Times reporter who broke the NSA story, also broke a story on where Osama bin Laden is hiding about a year ago. He wrote the story on Osama's sanctuary -- northern Pakistan, in case you were wondering -- for the December 13, 2004 issue of the Times. When we interviewed him a couple of weeks later on The Young Turks, he told us that he had held the potentially explosive story until after the election.

Risen told us, "I wanted to do it after the election. I didn't want to get caught up in the politics of it."

That story could have been politically damaging to the Bush administration before the November election because it contained government sources saying we had made a conscious decision not to pursue Osama bin Laden more actively (for some understandable though debatable reasons, you can listen to the whole interview here). After the election, the story was nearly ignored, perhaps ironically because people thought it made no difference after an election that confirmed we were going to continue with the same strategy as before.

Now, one has to wonder if Jim Risen and the New York Times made a similar decision about the NSA story. As you read Risen's quote about the earlier story, consider if the same thoughts might have run through his head on the spying piece as well:

"I thought that since we wrote this after the election, that it wouldn't be so politicized, that people might look at it more objectively. And that's why I was hoping -- that's one reason I wanted to do it after the election. I didn't want to get caught up in the politics of it."

If the New York Times is holding stories until after elections on a regular basis, we have to question if that's a wise policy. It's imperative that citizens who are about to vote have all the information at their disposal. If a media organization is purposely holding back critical information that can help voters decide who they want to be their leader, one has to wonder if they are neglecting their duty to their readers and fellow citizens.

Not running a story is just as important, and just as political, as running a story. It puts the newspaper in the role of kingmaker, deciding what the people should and should not hear. I was under the impression that their role was to deliver all the news that's fit to print. If they have a story that is well sourced and that they believe in, and they hold it because they don't want to run a politically damaging story, they are making a decision that is inherently political. That decision is driven not by the merit of the story, but by politics. It makes no difference if the NYT was concerned that they would be accused of being political -- the decision was still guided by political considerations, rather than news considerations.

This seems to me to be dangerous. I think we should have an honest debate about whether the New York Times has become too political, perhaps ironically in an effort to be less political.