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Listener Commentary: Debating Media Treason

By Lee Coppola

Olean, NY – The national debate continues over the release by the media of government secrets and other sensitive information. Listener-Commentator Lee Coppola reflects on whether such actions are treasonous or in the best interest of all Americans.

You can read the commentary here, or click the "listen" icon above to hear the commentary now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.

ONCE AGAIN AT THE CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION LAST WEEK THE PUBLISHER OF THE NEW YORK TIMES HAD TO DEFEND HIS PAPER'S REPORTING ON SECRET GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS. CRITICS CLAIM IT'S AN ACT OF TREASON TO REPORT ON SUCH THINGS, AND A NEW YORK CITY CONGRESSMEN EVEN CALLED FOR THE PROSECUTION OF ALL THOSE ON THE TIMES INVOLVED IN THE DECISION.

SO WHAT IT IS IT? TREASONOUS, UNPATRIOTIC OR THE OBLIGATION OF A FREE PRESS TO PRINT INFORMATION IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST?

THAT'S CERTAINLY A HARD QUESTION TO ASNWER. EACH CASE IS DIFFERENT. FOR THE TIMES, AND OTHER MEDIA OUTLETS, GOVERNMENT EVESDROPPING ON OVERSEAS TELEPHONE CALLS AND GOVERNMENT SCRUTINY OF BANK TRANSACTIONS FELL ON THE SIDE OF PUBLIC INTEREST.

GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS AS HIGH AS THE PRESIDENT DID NOT AGREE. THEY CLAIMED THE RELEASE OF SUCH INFORMATION UNDERMINED THE NATION'S WAR ON TERROR.

SO WHOM DO YOU BELIEVE? THOSE WHO PLACE THEIR UNFLINCHING TRUST IN WHAT OUR GOVERMENT DOES MOST LIKELY WOULD LINE UP BEHIND THE ADMINISTRATION. THOSE WITH A TOUCH OF CYNICISM AND ALL JOURNALISTS SHOULD HAVE A QUESTIONING NATURE MIGHT SEE IT ANOTHER WAY.

IN MY 25 YEARS AS A JOURNALIST, I WITHHELD STORIES WHEN ASKED BY AUTHORITIES. BUT ONLY WHEN I FELT ASSURED THAT REVEALING THE NEWS I HAD UNCOVERED MIGHT ENDANGER THE LIFE OF . . .SAY AN UNDERCOVER POLICE OFFICER OR POLICE INFORMANT.

TO ME, THOSE WERE NO BRAINERS, AKIN TO NOT REPORTING THE MOVEMENT OF TROOPS IN A WAR ZONE. I DIDN'T WANT THE BLOOD OF A DEAD PERSON I MIGHT HAVE HELPED KILL ON MY CONSCIENCE. BUT THINGS GET MUCH MURKIER WHEN THE ENDANGERED ARE NOT SO DEFINED.

DOES TELLING AMERICAN CITIZENS THEIR CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHERS OVERSEAS MIGHT BE TAPPED POSE A THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY? THE TIMES AND OTHERS THOUGHT NOT, AND RELIED ON OTHER GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TO REPORT THE EVESDROPPING WAS BEYOND THE SCOPE OF PRESIDENTIAL AUTHORITY.

WHAT ABOUT DISCLOSING THE GOVERNMENT SCRUTINY OF MONETARY TRANSACTIONS? THE PRESIDENT FELT SO STRONGLY ABOUT THIS HE SUMMONED THE PUBLISHER AND EDITOR OF THE TIMES TO THE WHITE HOUSE, APPARENTLY TO IMPLORE THEM NOT TO PUBLISH THAT INFORMATION. THEY DID ANYWAY, RELYING ON THE PUBLIC-RIGHT-KNOW PREMISE.

THEY ALSO CHOSE TO REPORT AFTER THEIR SOURCES TOLD THEM THAT PERHAPS THE SAFEGUARDS TO PROTECT INNOCENT CITIZENS WERE NOT BEING FOLLOWED.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE EXAMINED ARE THE RAMIFICATIONS OF GOING WITH THE STORY. MOST OFTEN, REVEALING THE INFORMATION DOES FAR MORE GOOD THAN HARM. KNOWING THE UNITED STATES IS LISTENING, KNOWING THEIR BANK TRANSACTIONS ARE BEING MONITORED, JUST MIGHT CURTAIL RATHER THAN AID TERRORISTS OR THOSE WHO SUPPORT THEM. AT THE LEAST, IT MIGHT CUT OFF TWO ROUTES TERRORISTS MIGHT FOLLOW IN THEIR PLANNING.

WHEN GOVERNMENT AND MEDIA CLASH OVER THE REPORTING OF SECRET OR SENSITIVE INFORMATION, I'M OLD ENOUGH TO HARKEN BACK TO 1971. THAT'S WHEN PRESIDENT NIXON DECLARED A DETAILED REPORT ON THE VIETNAM WAR A TOP-SECRET DOCUMENT THAT, IF REVEALED, WOULD ENDANGER THE UNITED STATES. ONCE THE NEW YORK TIMES AND WASHINGTON POST PRINTED THE PENTAGON PAPERS, THE PUBLIC LEARNED THE ONLY ENDANGERING WAS TO THE REPUTATIONS OF THOSE WHO MADE DECISIONS ABOUT THE WAR THAT PROVED TO BE SO WRONG.

Listener-Commentator Lee Coppola is a former Buffalo journalist and Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

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