Bravery and the New York Times

April 16, 2006

Is it possible for the same person to be a hero in one set of circumstances, and a coward in the other? Usually not. Bravery is a pretty consistent trait.

But stepping back from the danger is not necessarily a sign of cowardliness. Prudence, after all, is the better part of valor.

These thoughts floated in my mind as I listened this morning to the report that the New York Times got a Pulitzer Prize for blowing the lid on the NSA’s eavesdropping program. This was a clear-cut example of bravery – given that the President personally pressured the publisher to block publication of the report.

So, where did “cowardliness” come from? Well, we only know the stories that have been reported, not the ones that were not. And I know of one that is far more important than that of the NSA, on which the NY Times took the path of – well, prudence.

Perhaps the issue was, in fact, minor? If our free speech rights are unimportant, than – that’s right. But I think that the fact that the great majority of Americans are denied free speech rights – via official regulations – is huge news indeed.

Judge for yourself: if you write a book, you’ll find it next to impossible to get it published – unless you have the connections. And if you do it yourself – your book will be laughed off as a “vanity publication,” as a mere “book-like object.” It will not be reviewed, stocked by the bookstores, placed on library shelves. Your contribution to the public debate will be left unheard; your voice will be stifled – so as to protect the big publisher’s turf and his ability to make money. Free speech? If you see it, than you have a really strong microscope.

Why did the NY Times ignore this story (which was to be focused on my lawsuit against the Library of Congress for the government’s role in this charade), for all my letters to Edward Wyatt, its correspondent who writes on the publishing industry’s lawsuits, and my personal pleas with Sam Sifton, the paper’s culture editor? The answer is simple – publishing the story would ignite the ire of big publishers who advertise in the paper. They’d pull the ads, and the paper would be hit in the pocketbook. This is so different from the consequences of reporting on the NSA, so much less prudent. It is better to show the better part of valor here – and step back. Prudence is a better policy. Some may use the word “cowardliness” as more adequate – but it is such an ugly word – and so dissonant with a Pulitzer Prize…

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