When the climate scandal broke, the New York Times decided not to publish the leaked emails and documents, making the risible argument:
The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here.
Of course, the NYT publishes illegally acquired documents all the time (often damaging national security). But that’s when the documents’ publication serves to further the NYT’s political aims.
Now the NYT ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, is doing his job, which is to defend the NYT regardless of how indefensible its position is. Hoyt says:
As for not posting the e-mail, Revkin said he should have used better language in his blog, Dot Earth, to explain the decision, which was driven by advice from a Times attorney. The lawyer, George Freeman, told me that there is a large legal distinction between government documents like the Pentagon Papers, which The Times published over the objections of the Nixon administration, and e-mail between private individuals, even if they may receive some government money for their work. He said the Constitution protects the publication of leaked government information, as long as it is newsworthy and the media did not obtain it illegally. But the purloined e-mail, he said, was covered by copyright law in the United States and Britain.
Oh, I see. The NYT’s policy is that it will publish illegally obtained documents when they belong to the government, but they won’t publish them if they are private.
Does that sound plausible to you? No, it didn’t sound plausible to me either. Of course the NYT would have no qualms of publishing private, stolen documents if they served the NYT’s purposes. You needn’t accept my judgement either, because it took less than a minute of googling to uncover this:
In May 1994, the Times published a series of stories about the tobacco industry that were based on the pre-Internet equivalent of leaked e-mails. The paper’s coverage later led to a book by reporter Philip J. Hilts titled Smokescreen: The Truth Behind The Tobacco Industry Cover-up.
The circumstances surrounding the tobacco industry then and the climate science community now are remarkably similar, yet the Times reached exact opposite conclusions about how to cover the news.
In the tobacco case, the NYT published documents that were illegally obtained and private, just as the climate documents. In fact, not only were they private, there was a legal injunction in place forbidding their publication. The NYT chose to defy the court and publish anyway. (ASIDE: I’m not saying they were wrong to do so.)
So let’s drop the nonsense about copyright law. That’s not even a good bogus argument. Obviously the NYT is perfectly willing to defy the law when they feel like it. The point is they didn’t want to publish these documents.