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Times reporter tells of secrecy issues

White House, press often at odds, Sanger says at Y.

David Sanger
David Sanger

PROVO — The New York Times has published a lot of information the Bush administration wanted to stay secret, but the paper's editors also have agreed not to run stories when convinced by the White House they would aid terrorists, a Times reporter told Brigham Young University students on Thursday.

Real, daily tension between the government and the press is exactly what the American Founding Fathers wanted, Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger said.

Simply reporting what the White House says each day "is not what the founders had in mind when they initially wrote the First Amendment and thought about the role of reporters," Sanger said. "We are a check on government. That is the core part of our job."

Frequently, what the White House tells the media in the West Wing press room bears little resemblance to the real debates taking place yards away.

"So the trick of White House reporting is to report on the delta between what is said publicly and what is actually going on," Sanger said.

Sanger was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in the mid-'80s, in part for his work in Utah revealing the cause of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a faulty O-ring made by a company based in Ogden. He learned lessons here that have served him well in Japan and covering the White House.

"I learned that governments sometimes don't tell the truth," he said. "That getting sources to do the courageous thing and expose what the government was doing takes some doing. That policymakers in Washington are often hampered by the fact they have a (poor) grasp of the technology that is involved that could lead to mistakes in their policy judgments."

Over the protests of President Bush, the Times revealed the White House had issued an executive order allowing domestic wiretapping forbidden by federal law. Times reporters wrote about the North Korean nuclear program during the lead-up to the Iraq war, drawing complaints from senior White House officials. And recently the Times revealed that Bush, who pursued the policy of preemption, urged that Israel not make a preemptive airstrike on Syria's nuclear program.

"Our job is to raise the issues the president is not talking about," Sanger said.

While he listed key stories questioning the run-up to the Iraq war, Sanger said the Times didn't go far enough and never explored Iran's future role in a U.S.-Iraq conflict. Now, he claimed, Iran has a bigger role in daily Iraqi politics than the United States does and many suspect a U.S.-Iran conflict is coming over the Iranian nuclear program.

An older audience member, not a student or faculty member, criticized the media's accuracy during a question-and-answer session after Sanger's speech. The reporter said the Times' policy of placing reporters around the world makes it more accurate than most, but he agreed the Times makes mistakes every day and called the proliferation of news organizations and blogs a positive development. He also regularly hears the accusation it doesn't report enough stories of the positive happening in Iraq. The Times wrote dozens of positives stories early in the war, he said, calling the attack plan "ingenious," but added that the administration wasn't prepared for what came after and had no stomach for an occupation, leading to a draw-down of forces that allowed the insurgency to blossom.

Responding to a student's question, Sanger credited the Bush administration for doing more to reform foreign aid, spending more on AIDS projects and working to transform the military. Sanger said news reporting is difficult in any White House, whether it is controlled by Democrats or Republicans.

"It's particularly hard with this White House because this White House has been particularly secretive and particularly intent on keeping its secrets," he said, adding, "Actions this big can't be conducted in secret for too long. One by one each of these decisions came to light by news reporters doing what news reporters do."