NBC had gotten a solid tip and was ready to break the story on Monday's Nightly News that an FBI agent had been arrested and accused of spying for the Russians and the Soviet Union before that.
But at the government's request, the network held the story of veteran agent Robert Philip Hanssen's alleged treachery overnight and broke it on the Today show.
The FBI cited national security concerns, not wanting to endanger a stakeout targeting what the agency believed was a scheduled document pickup Monday night by Hanssen's alleged contacts. When contacted by Washington correspondent Pete Williams for confirmation of the spy story, the agency believed that NBC's revealing the story early Monday evening would probably deter Hanssen's contacts.
Williams and NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley spoke with the FBI before deciding to delay the story. "Any time someone asks you to withhold a story," Wheatley said, "there'd better be a darn good reason. We don't rubber stamp these things. When they explained that they had an operation in progress and that it was a national-security matter, we listened. And we agreed to withhold the story temporarily."
Wheatley said the network believed it was alone on the story and said the FBI was cooperative in providing information, although it did not allow network crews at the stakeout.
In fact, no one came for the documents, and the story opened Tuesday's Today show. FBI spokesmen confirmed NBC's account.
Requests by the government, corporations or private citizens that journalists delay or even drop stories are not unusual. Most such requests do not alter the coverage. But news organizations will sometimes agree to delay or embargo a story-particularly if the delay enhances exclusivity or access. And sometimes a story may be delayed for reasons of public interest.
"There may be rare instances when a news organization is convinced that it's appropriate and essential to hold a story for a short period of time because of a greater purpose. National security is the one usually at the top of that list," said Poynter Institute journalism ethicist Bob Steele.
"News organizations should ascertain how long they might have to hold the story, and determine what downside there is to the public in knowing a story later, rather than sooner," he said. "In this case, one could argue that the public, NBC's viewers, are not disserved by airing a story 12, 14 or 24 hours later than they might have otherwise."
There are, of course, risks in holding a story. Chief among them that someone else has it and isn't holding it. And then there is that journalistic urban legend that The New York Times discovered the government's Bay of Pigs invasion plans prior to the 1961 incident but held off on reporting it at President Kennedy's request. Later, the story goes, Kennedy said he wished the paper had revealed what it knew and possibly prevented the disastrous operation.
Recent scholarship by McClatchy Newspapers, however, concludes that, in fact, the Times and other news organizations, including CBS, reported that anti-Castro guerrillas were training at a U.S.-run base in Guatemala in 1960 for a possible invasion of Cuba. There were some compromises, however, in reporting projected invasion dates and in not mentioning the CIA's involvement.
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