Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Crocodile Tears Revisited

Today's Times attempts to rehabilitate Judith Miller, by rationalizing her conduct.
But the hard truth is that no reporter can choose the circumstances for upholding a principle. It doesn't matter whether we think a source is a good person or has good motivations. A reporter promises confidentiality, and the paper backs up the journalist because otherwise the public will not learn what it needs to know. It's up to the reporter and editor to determine whether information given under a promise of confidentiality is reliable. But reporters cannot apply ideology when protecting their sources, any more than civil liberties lawyers can defend the First Amendment rights of only the people they agree with.
But wait - the paper just got through telling us that Miller didn't write a story, so it seems fair to assume that the leak at issue did not implicate the needs of the public to "learn what it needs to know". At a certain point, when a reporter shields dubious sources with promises of anonymity, the reporting ends and what amounts to a conspiracy begins - a conspiracy that allows a lazy reporter to sit behind her desk, get sensational "scoops" from anonymous high level sources, and print them without regard to their truth. That's not protecting the needs of the public - it is self-serving conduct, which primarily helps the reporter, secondarily helps her newspaper sell copy, but in fact causes harm to the public. When one of those dubious sources later telephones the reporter to leak the identity of a CIA operative, as part of a revenge plot against the operative's husband, the public interest is not advanced by protecting the source. Once again, the public interest is harmed.
The prosecutor produced what he claimed were waivers of confidentiality signed by White House officials, and his supporters have asked how Ms. Miller or any other journalists could remain silent if the presumed sources say they are free to talk. In fact, these documents were extracted by coercion, so they are meaningless.
That is true, actually. If everybody has to sign a waiver to keep his or her job, the source will be placed in the position of either signing a waiver or being identified by virtue of his or her refusal. To the extent that a reporter is willing to go to jail on principle under such circumstances, there's some substance to the principle. Whether or not this applies to Miller? Not even the NY Times seems to know.

Personally, I think Miller's "principles" are that she is protecting her ability to be a lazy reporter, an eager conduit for salacious and inflammatory rumors from people like Karl Rove, reprinting them without regard to truth. I don't believe that the "sources" she is protecting are those traditionally associated with reporting - that is, she didn't find them by doing anything that is traditionally associated with investigative reporting. They came to her and she cut a deal with them which was against the public interest. She kept her end of the deal (and gained considerable notoriety) by disseminating innuendo and falsehood on their behalf, with scant regard for the public interest. So I have little sympathy for her present, ostensibly "principled", stand.

In fairness, at least when it came to this particular story, she was more principled than Robert Novak.


  1. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that in the dictionary of popular phrases the example given for "damning with faint praise" was: In fairness, at least when it came to this particular story, she was more principled than Robert Novak.


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