New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote a column this weekend probing the paper’s decision to withhold information about Raymond Davis, the American man who was arrested in Pakistan in January after shooting two men dead on the streets of Lahore.
Last week, the Times and other news outlets revealed that, after a request by the Obama administration, they had held back reporting that Davis was a contractor working for the CIA.
Brisbane reports that on Feb. 8, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley contacted Times executive editor Bill Keller with a request.
“He was asking us not to speculate, or to recycle charges in the Pakistani press,” Keller said. “His concern was that the letters C-I-A in an article in the NYT, even as speculation, would be taken as authoritative and would be a red flag in Pakistan.”
Even after the British newspaper The Guardian reported last week that Davis worked with the CIA, the State Department asked the Times and others to wait another 24 hours before publishing — so that the U.S. could try to have Davis moved to the safest location possible.
“Agreeing to the State Department’s request was a decision bound to bring down an avalanche of criticism and, even worse, impose serious constraints on The Times’s journalism,” Brisbane wrote. “The alternative, though, was to take the risk that reporting the C.I.A. connection would, as warned, lead to Mr. Davis’s death.”
Brisbane argued that editors do not have the standing to decide when a story is worth a life. At the same time, he acknowledged that the agreement had led to different kinds of problems.
“In practice, this meant [the Times’] stories contained material that, in the cold light of retrospect, seems very misleading,” Brisbane wrote.
On Friday, Davis appeared before a Pakistani judge and refused to sign a list of allegations against him, according to ABC News. Davis presented a written notice declaring diplomatic immunity, a lawyer for one of the shooting victims’ family said.
The incident has inflamed anti-American sentiments in Pakistan, and touched off a diplomatic stand off.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com