Jill Abramson talks to John Seigenthaler
Jill Abramson, first female executive editor of The New York TimesAl Jazeera America
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden helped The New York Times "keep the public informed on what I consider to be very important matters," says Jill Abramson, the woman who has the final say on what constitutes "all the news that's fit to print." As executive editor of the Times — the first woman to hold what has been one of the most influential positions in American journalism — Abramson sets the agenda. We talk to her about what she calls the "most secretive White House" she has covered as well as the newspaper's "seriously flawed" coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War, which happened during her watch as Washington bureau chief. John Seigenthaler also asks Abramson about the future of print newspapers and about accusations that the Times is too far left.
John Seigenthaler: Let me dive right into the news and a little bit about the NSA and Edward Snowden. Daniel Ellsberg was quoted recently as saying that Edward Snowden was his hero. Do you see Snowden as a hero or a traitor?
Jill Abramson: I see him as a very good source. We have published many of the NSA and GCHQ (British intelligence) documents that came from Snowden. And so I view him, as I did Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, as a very good source of extremely newsworthy information.
“Edward Snowden did help The New York Times keep the public informed on what I consider to be very important matters.”
Executive editor, The New York Times
Some things were published. Some things were not published. How do you make those decisions?
We make those decisions trying to apply common-sense balancing tests, where we respectfully listen to concerns of the U.S. government that publishing a story is going to actually harm national security, and we balance those concerns against the importance and newsworthiness of the information and our primary duty, which is to keep the public informed.
Is it comparable to the Pentagon Papers?
No, it's hard to say — in that situation, obviously, Daniel Ellsberg was the source. That material exposed really terrible, terrible official lies by the U.S. government, lies about the progress of the Vietnam War. And that made that material so consequential, I think, because of that. In this case, the material has provided a window into the scale of eavesdropping and all kinds of troubling things and some — certainly misstatements by officials, but I'm not sure they've exposed a wholesale cover-up and public lying over years and years the way the Pentagon Papers did.
On the editorial page, the Times editorialized, saying that Edward Snowden should be considered for amnesty. Do you get involved in the editorials?
So do you agree, disagree, with the editorial's opinion when it comes to Edward Snowden and amnesty, or do you have an opinion?
I don't have an opinion. I value the fact that, by doing what he did, Edward Snowden did help The New York Times keep the public informed on what I consider to be very important matters.
“The Obama administration has had seven criminal leak investigations. That is more than twice the number of any previous administration in our history.”
The New York Times' Jill Abramson Al Jazeera America
Let me move on to another topic in the Obama administration. How would you grade this administration, compared to others, when it comes to its relationship with the media?
Well, I would slightly like to interpret the question as "How secretive is this White House?" which I think is the most important question. I would say it is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes — I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now, and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush's first term.
I dealt directly with the Bush White House when they had concerns that stories we were about to run put the national security under threat. But, you know, they were not pursuing criminal leak investigations. The Obama administration has had seven criminal leak investigations. That is more than twice the number of any previous administration in our history. It's on a scale never seen before. This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with.
And do you think this comes directly from the president?
I would think that it would have to. I don't know that, but certainly enough attention has been focused on this issue that, if he departed from the policies of his government, I think we'd know that at this point.
So it makes it more difficult for The New York Times to do its job.
The White House does?
The White House does. And in the case of specific journalists, I would talk for a minute about Jim Risen, who is one of my most valued colleagues. In 2005, he is the reporter who, along with Eric Lichtblau, broke the story about the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping, which was, in a way, the first view we had into the world of the NSA's collection of data and communications. He has had this leak investigation hanging over his head for years now.http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/talk-to-al-jazeera/interviews-and-more/2014/1/21/jill-abramson-talkstojohnseigenthaler.html