Press Navigates a Sensitive Role USA Today publishes a follow-up story to its May report of a secret government program for the creation of a massive data base of American's phone records with the cooperation of several telecommunications companies. In the story printed today, the paper stated that further reporting has left them unable to confirm that Bell South and Verizon cooperated with the government, as the paper reported in May. The admission comes in a week during which the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have been hammering The New York Times for publishing a story about another secret government program for surveillance of banking records. The attacks on the Times have questioned the role of the press in a time of war -- and some have suggested the prosecution of journalists under espionage laws.
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Press Navigates a Sensitive Role

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Press Navigates a Sensitive Role

Press Navigates a Sensitive Role

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

USA Today is backing away from some details in its report that the National Security Agency gathered the phone records of tens of millions of Americans. Two of the three phone companies the paper said participated in the program denied the claim, and USA Today now says it can't prove those two firms provided any records.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, USA Today's move comes as the rhetoric is heating up against other newspapers for disclosing government efforts to thwart terrorists.

This morning USA Today said AT&T did cooperate, as it reported back in May, but it can't prove that BellSouth or Verizon turned over records of domestic calls. Here's USA Today editor, Ken Paulson.

Mr. KEN PAULSON (USA Today): The core of the story is solid. There is a domestic calls database and there are some aspects of the mechanics that we apparently did not get right.

FOLKENFLIK: He says the paper's sources spoke in good faith, but only had pieces of the puzzle. More pieces became available later, when Bush administration officials briefed Congressional lawmakers. The paper reports 19 unnamed lawmakers confirmed the database's existence, but several said BellSouth and Verizon were not involved.

There's one catch. Verizon had just purchased long-distance carrier MCI, which lawmakers said had turned over phone records. Ken Paulson says USA Today is keeping faith with the readers.

Mr. PAULSON: We believe strongly in our First Amendment obligation to act as a watchdog on government and to keep an eye on people in power. But with that First Amendment role comes a responsibility to set the record straight if some aspect of our reporting doesn't hold up.

FOLKENFLIK: The original article led to some criticism for revealing American tactics, but nothing like the fury that accompanied a recent scoop from the New York Times.

Last Thursday night, the Times reported U.S. Treasury officials had secretly used sweeping subpoenas to gain access to millions of confidential banking records. The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal followed closely behind. That set off President Bush early this week.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.

FOLKENFLIK: Yesterday the House of Representatives passed a resolution denouncing news organizations for revealing the program.

Representative SPENCER BACHUS (Republican, Alabama): If you're al-Qaida, the appropriate response to this publication is thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican.

Representative BACHUS: But if you're an American citizen endangered by terrorists, the insensitivity, the arrogance and the irresponsibility of this paper, then the appropriate response is anger and outrage and this resolution.

FOLKENFLIK: Lawmakers say their anger is fueled by past newspaper reports about the NSA's warrantless domestic wiretapping program and the alleged secret prisons run abroad by the CIA at which terror suspects are questioned outside American law. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller says he listened to appeals from government officials not to run the banking story, but found them unconvincing.

Mr. BILL KELLER (New York Times): At some point it become arrogant on the part of news organizations to say yeah, we've vetted this program. We've decided it meets all legal tests and therefore we're not going to let readers in on it. I think you have to allow readers to make their own judgment.

FOLKENFLIK: Keller says the Times has withheld stories that would have made the front page, but could have threatened lives. Ultimately, Keller says, the decision has to be left to editors.

Mr. KELLER: It may be imperfect, but what's the alternative? To let only the Treasury Department, the FBI, the CIA and the White House decide what's fit to publish?

FOLKENFLIK: In the Times newsroom there's gallows humor about editors being fitted for the orange jumpsuits found in prisons, but Keller says such jokes stem from genuine anxiety about the growing tensions between the media and the government it tries to cover.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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