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Why CBS News held its Brittney Griner scoop for a full week


CBS News broke the news Thursday morning of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian prison in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — but it came a full week after its journalists learned about it.

After receiving an initial tip Dec. 1 that Griner would be part of a prisoner swap, CBS reporters obtained confirmation from five sources by the following day. But the network agreed to a White House request to hold the news — for fear of jeopardizing the delicate negotiations that led to the swap.

The White House “asked us not to make it public because officials expressed grave concern about the fragility of the emerging deal and feared it would impede the safety — perhaps even put those Americans at risk,” CBS’s chief foreign correspondent, Margaret Brennan, said on air Thursday.

Though it might seem unusual for a news organization to sit on a story of such magnitude, there is a long history of journalists adhering to the pleas of government officials to hold off on — or even shelve — sensitive stories.

In a call with network staffers Thursday, CBS News President Neeraj Khemlani said that the scoop “really speaks to the strength of the CBS News Washington bureau” and that “we take seriously our responsibility as journalists to cover the story fully without putting lives in immediate danger,” according to an account provided to The Washington Post.

After putting a hold on the story, a senior CBS News producer stayed in “constant” touch with officials from the National Security Council in the White House, a network official said.

The arrangement allowed for CBS News to report the story once there was confirmation that Griner was in U.S. custody. Speaking after the operation was successfully completed, a Biden administration official said the White House was appreciative of how the network handled the story.

Although CBS would have felt comfortable publishing the story late last week, the network official said, the delay allowed its journalists to do more reporting — including about the logistics of the negotiations and a previous attempt to free Griner that fell apart — that improved the final story.

CBS News was not the only network to agree to hold off on publishing the story: So did another news outlet that had also confirmed the story by Wednesday, according to the administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

In 1996, CBS News held a scoop about the imminent arrest of Ted Kaczynski, the terrorist known as the “Unabomber,” at the request of the FBI. The agency praised the network’s willingness to delay the story, “even as some senior law enforcement officials criticized the network for forcing them to speed up their timetable,” The Post reported at the time.

In the case of Griner, though, veteran journalists argued that CBS made the right decision.

“News organizations certainly should be sensitive to reporting that, if done in real time, could jeopardize lives or sensitive and ongoing operations and negotiations,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief now with George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “There was not journalistic advantage in breaking the story early if it would have endangered Griner’s release.”

Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Post, said that when the government asks a news organization to delay or shelve a story, editors must ask: What are the potential consequences of publishing the story?

“We never did not run a story, but sometimes we waited until we completely understood the ramifications,” he said, mentioning a 2005 report about secret CIA prisons that George Bush’s administration tried to discourage. “We did not want to do harm to national security. We did not want to do harm to individual lives. But if the government was embarrassed about something, and that’s why they didn’t want to run the story, it didn’t matter.”

It made sense for CBS to hold the Griner story, Downie argued, because the operation to secure her return was still ongoing when the network learned of it. “I didn’t see any overriding reason why you would go with just a scoop when there could be a real danger to human life, in her case, to the whole operation,” he said.

After the fact, CBS news personnel did let it be known that they knew about it first and agreed to wait.

“Of course we kept our word on that,” “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King told viewers Thursday. “We’ve known about it for some time. … I can’t tell you how excited everybody is that was pulling for Brittney Griner. This is such great news.”

“Yes, CBS did hold up our end of the bargain,” King’s co-host Nate Burleson chimed in.