Reese Schonfeld, Co-founder of CNN, Says The Public Does Not Have a "Right to Know"
Reported by Marie Therese - May 24, 2005
Last week on May 16th, during an appearance on The Big Story with John Gibson, CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld made some very scary statements about the roles of the media and the Pentagon in time of war. The two men were discussing the Newsweek Koran story. Here's my transcript of part of that interview:
GIBSON: You're saying that editors should, and in fact, do make calculations about whether people are going to live or die because of the revelations they're about to make and that this was one in which editors should have foreseen just what happened.
SCHONFELD: Sure. What, what difference ... Absolutely. Everyone knows or should know, if they know anything about the Arab world or the Muslim world, how holy the bible is - their Koran - is to them and how inflammatory a statement that we had desecrated it, flushed it down the toilet or whatever would be in that world and someone should have said: Well, what real difference does it make if we report that or don't report that. And should never have reported it. But if you were even gonna consider reporting it, well, I don't, I don't even - I wouldn't even consider reporting it. I would have sat there in the chair and said "No, this doesn't go in the story." Period.
GIBSON: OK, but would you have - by that same reasoning would you have not reported Abu Ghraib if somebody had brought you those pictures.
SCHONFELD: Abu Ghraib is the greatest foul up of all time. Those pictures were on the internet. The problem is not that we were - we - I only wish the Pentagon could have been able to deny that story, to be able to li - that's the right of the Pentagon to lie, when it is in the country's best interest to lie, you do lie. And when I made that statement in my book, an undersecretary - well - at Defense told me I don't have it quite right, the - uh - Rumsfeld, the Secretary can never lie but any, anybody under him can, that you have to do it when it's in the public, in the government interest.
GIBSON: Alright, then how does Newsweek retract 17 deaths?
SCHONFELD (laughs and throws up his hands): I - There's no way. You know. That's, that's not a question. There's no answer.
GIBSON (overtalks last 6 words): Obviously, they don't so there's really no answer. So there's really no way for Newsweek to make up this?
SCHONFELD: Even if the story was 100% right they would still have to retract 17 deaths 'cause it shouldn't have been published. It was in nobody's interest. It wasn't in American interest. It wasn't in the interests of anyone and I can't understand still sitting here. This whole idea - the public has a right to know - the public does not have a "right to know." The editor has a right to publish - that's what the First Amendment is about. The guy who owns the paper, the editor, says what goes in and what doesn't and he doesn't have to tell everything he knows and, God forbid, that he ever should.
GIBSON: And you wouldn't have run this?
From Newseum on Nazi Censorship:
"The state must not ... let itself be confused by the drivel about so-called freedom of the press .. it must make sure of this instrument of popular education and place it in the service of the state." - Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf
Press freedom begins to disappear in Germany in 1932, the year before Adolf Hitler takes power. By 1933, the Nazis decree the virtual end of a free press. The government turns editors and journalists into servants of the state. Bureaucrats decide what may be published. Publishers can't hire or fire journalists. Only the government can.
The Nazis slash the number of daily newspapers from 2,500 in 1933 to 1,500 in 1937. That makes them easier to control. Then, because of the war, the number is cut again to 800 by 1943.
The major Nazi newspapers are the Voelkischer Beobachter, the official party organ started in 1920; Der Stuermer, a lurid and frequently pornographic anti-Jewish weekly publication; and Der Angriff, the daily Labor Front mouthpiece of Joseph Goebbels, German minister of propaganda.
The government has run German radio since it started in the 1920s, so the Nazis easily take over, using radio to "re-educate" the German people. Much of the broadcast day is centrally controlled, covering news, political talks, communiques, music and entertainment, with some features of local interest.
Says propaganda minister Goebbels: "With the instrument of radio you can make public opinion. Perhaps even conquer a country."
SPECIAL NOTE - June 3, 2005 at 12:49 PM EDT
We received a communique from Mr. Schonfeld on June 2, 2005 regarding this post. The title of the post has been altered - a quotation mark was moved from the left of the word the and placed to the left of the word public. Similarly, quotations have been added to the words right to know in the body of the text, as per Mr. Schonfeld's request.
Here is the text of his e-mail:
The words right to know should be "right to know". I was referring to a constitutional or judicial "right to know". The idea of a "right" is often misused because right is a "must", a "requirement". There is no requirement in the US Constitution or any judicial ruling that the public has a right to know, unless that right is granted under the freedom of information and act. Unfortunately, or fortunately, from one's point of view the FOI would not apply to the Koran flush story until it became part of an official governmental document that was not marked "secret", "top secret" or perhaps "confidential".
If Newsweek had not rushed into print with its story and had waited until the government report had been completed we would all have been saved from another press mess. One of the media's most important roles is that it acts as a "censor" in the old roman tradition, if we ourselves are sloppy we loose credibility and tarnish our entire institution. Vague claims of a public's "right to know" are no excuse for carelessness.