[star]The American Mind[star]

July 21, 2006

Media Used to Keep a Secret

Once upon a time the media could be trusted to keep a secret when lives were on the line. Former reporter Michael Berlin tells us the story of Americans hidden in the Canadian embassy in Tehran when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy in 1979.

On Nov. 4 of that year, Islamic militants stormed and occupied the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran and took hostage the more than 70 Americans there.

But six American officials happened to be outside the compound, elsewhere in the Iranian capital, at the time of the takeover. The militants never realized that some Americans were missing; they were being sheltered by Canadian diplomats in Tehran, who were risking their own safety to protect them.

At that time, I was a reporter covering the United Nations for the New York Post and The Washington Post. On the second day after the takeover, I got hold of a published diplomatic list of Americans attached to the embassy in Iran, just to try to put names to the hostages. So did journalists all over Washington, and in newsrooms across America.

I noticed a discrepancy in the numbers: People on the list outnumbered hostages announced by the militants. That day, in the U.N. lunchroom used by resident reporters, press officers and the occasional lost tourist, I asked an American press officer about the discrepancy. He brushed me off but suggested that I might ask the Canadians about it, immediately making me suspicious.

I asked the Canadians, who said they would get back to me. By then I had pieced together a pretty good idea of the basics of the story.

I soon got a call from a high-ranking member of the American U.N. delegation, a good source before and after, who formally asked me to hold back the story. Publication, he said, could put the lives of the fugitive Americans and their Canadian hosts in danger.

I called my editor at the New York Post and put the request before him. His only question was whether I could rely on my American source to cue me the moment the story was about to leak or could be released. I called the ambassador back, and he promised to put me on the Washington list of those who would receive simultaneous green-light calls. The New York Post accepted the deal, and my editors at The Washington Post told me their State Department writers were on the same green-light list.


Media could keep a secret back then. Bravo for those journalists who cared more about the possible ill effects of their reporting than their careers. Back then it was still in the media's cultural DNA to be careful with certain secrets. Life and death were in the balance.

That's a far cry from today when Bill Keller and his NY Times decided it was in the public's interest to tell the world and America's enemies about the Swift financial surveillance program. I can imagine Keller's attitude in 1979. He would have wanted to report on the hidden Americans and their Canadian friends. He would have argued the public had a right to know that all the embassy workers were accounted for and where the missing were.

With his op-ed Berlin tries to demonstrate the media can keep a life-threatening secret. The MSM can be trusted while he worries "that some blogger or counterculture ideologue using journalism as a political tool rather than as a mechanism for dispensing straight information, would make the wrong call." All Berlin really proves is reporters had more prudence and a better sense of cause and effect than today's gaggle, or as Tom Maguire writes, "About all this incident proves is that the press could make the easy calls almost thirty years ago."

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Posted by Sean Hackbarth in Media at 04:55 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)