Cost of not publishing, The

cost of not publishing, The

Hickey, Neil

The New York Times decided not to print what it knew about the Bay of Pigs invasion. Later, there were some regrets.

In his memoir, Deadline, James Reston of The New York Times wrote: “Nothing gave us more trouble during my years on [the paper] than the conflict with the government over what should and should not be published during periods of war or threats of war.” That dilemma was dramatized most clearly in April 1961, when anti-Castro forces, trained and supplied by the CIA in Guatemala and Florida, were preparing to invade Cuba.

The plan was no secret. But the timetable was not known. Then, on April 6, the Times’s Tad Szulc filed a story declaring that the invasion was “imminent. ” The paper prepared to go to press with a page-one four-column lead piece using that adjective in both the text and the headline.

Immediately a red flag went up in the mind of the Times’s managing editor, Turner Catledge, who conferred with Orvil Dryfoos, the publisher, and with Reston in Washington. Their consensus: kill the word “imminent” and bump the head down to one column on the ground that, if the invasion happened within a day or two and Castro was thus forewarned and prepared, the Times would bear the brunt of responsibility if lives were lost.

Fierce recriminations broke out at the paper from editors who disagreed with the Catledge-Reston-Dryfoos decision. When the invaders did land on April 17 at Bahia de Cochinos (the Bay of Pigs) on the south coast of the island, the result was calamitous: over 100 of 1,500 exiles died and all the rest were quickly taken prisoner. It was a major embarrassment for John F Kennedy, who later told Catledge that if the Times had stuck with its original handling of the invasion plans, the country might have been spared the debacle. Reston ever after agonized over whether a newspaper ought to weigh the possible effects of its reporting on presidential decision-making.

The Bay of Pigs incident was not the first time, or the last, that the Times and other newspapers withheld information in support of national policy. Starting in 1956, the CIA sent U-2 spy planes over the USSR. Many journalists were aware of the flights but printed nothing about them until a U-2 pilot named Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, causing a major rift in U.S.-Soviet relations.

In Vietnam, correspondents routinely complied with military guidelines requesting that movements of U.S. troops not be reported until contact was made with the enemy. Newsrooms everywhere, for generations, have refrained from printing all they know about certain crime stories lest they interfere with active police investigations. Do such decisions serve the public interest or undermine it? Does the public have an absolute right to know, irrespective of the consequences? Where and how does a journalist confidently draw the line?

The Bay of Pigs was an instructive case study – Neil Hickey

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Nov/Dec 2001

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