Jill Abramson Discusses Leaks and the Duty of the Press to Inform the Public

Jill_Abramson Princeton HeadshotThe United States government has not presented any compelling evidence that stories that have been published related to national security issues have posed any kind of security threat, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said Thursday night.

Abramson addressed more than 200 people at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University for the talk “In Defense of Leaks: Why A Free Press Matters More in the Age of Terror” for the Ruskeyser Memorial Lecture, an annual talk for the Princeton community given by a prominent journalist, writer, or veteran of the media industry. The annual talk is hosted by the Princeton University Press Club.

The Obama administration has been every bit as aggressive, if not more so, than the Bush administration in seeking to find the source of leaks to the press, Abramson said. Sometimes the U.S. government asks news outlets like the New York Times not to run stories, claiming the stories will threaten national security.

“There needs to be a higher bar for when to ask for stories not to run,” she said.

When she worked at the New York Times, Abramson met with James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to discuss national security coverage and the role of the press.

“He listened respectfully, but I don’t think it actually changed his view,” she said. “He felt keeping secrets was far more important than keeping the public informed. Our meeting ended with us agreeing to disagree.”

Abramson said part of her distress over requests not to publish stories is linked to the fact that there are so many criminal prosecutions involving leakers. The U.S. government has been using the Espionage Act of 1917, which Woodrow Wilson pushed to get passed, to prosecute whistleblowers who leak information to the press.

The law has been revived in the post 9/11 atmosphere to prosecute leakers, and journalists who publish stories based on leaks of classified national security intelligence have also been swept into the government’s pursuit of the leaks, she said. Many people who have studied the law believe the Espionage Act was never intended to be used to restrict the freedom of the press, she said. Eight leakers have faced prosecution, more than double the entire number of people prosecuted in American history prior to the Bush and Obama administrations.

“The eight cases under the Bush and Obama administrations are all whistleblowers — people who worked for the government and felt they were witnessing illegal or abusive government powers,” she said. “They felt it was their duty to inform the public.”

In several cases, reporters who broke the stories were subpoenaed to give information to the government on how they got the stories, and who their sources were. Abramson said the leak investigations have had a chilling effect on the flow of information about national security issues to reporters.

“Sources who used to take reporters’ calls were so fearful they would be subjected to leak investigations that they began telling reporters `’don’t ever call me again’,” she said. “The atmosphere for doing national security coverage had become almost completely impossible.”

Abramson acknowledged that making decisions to publish stories about national security was often difficult, and that often the government was genuinely worried about the impact of the stories.

“Occasionally I felt the reason they didn’t want stories published was to avoid political embarrassment,” she said.

The press was often too timid, but in recent years it has got its priorities straight and pressed more for its rights to publish stories, she said.

Abramson, who is planning a new online journalism venture, discussed the state of the media during a question and answer session after her talk. She said the New York Times will continue to do great investigative accountability journalism in spite of all the changes in the media and job cuts.

“It will always thrive there,” she said. “What distresses me more broadly is that so much journalism is done by young people who are hungry to do that kind of highest reporting story, but what they are doing is repackaging information that is already on the Internet, and finding glitzy ways to get click bait headlines. Too broadly there is too little original reporting being done…there are too many instances where entertainment is passing for journalism.”

Abramson, who did not talk about her firing from the New York Times, told students to be persistent when building up their journalism careers.

“Don’t limit where you want to work to only Tiffany brands,” she said. “There are a number of new media organizations where you can do great work. It’s a great time to be a young journalist out there looking for work. It’s not a great time if what you want to be doing right off the bat is a 4,000 word article. You need experience to deliver that kind of story.”