Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Yet More About Reporters

Even if you're willing to click through the ads, I wouldn't reccomend reading this article at Salon about Judy Miller in jail. Unless you're actually undecided on this issue - which, if you know much about it, is unlikely - you're not going to find anything new there. However, the righteous tone of the article did piss me off about as much as it did Atrios (from whom I purloin the link.) The key line is on the second page:
On one hand, many members of the public -- especially liberals who ought to be staunch defenders of the Bill of Rights -- seem unable or unwilling to grasp the idea that a matter of fundamental principle might be at stake, even in the murky and seemingly bottomless waters of the Miller-Plame-Rove affair. Compelling a reporter to reveal his or her sources to the police turns that reporter into a police agent, and that's not acceptable, even in unsavory circumstances like these. No reporter can be expected to check out the legality or ethics or motivations of all sources in advance. All sorts of surprising people talk to reporters when they probably shouldn't, for all sorts of personal and political and psychological reasons. If journalists can only receive confidential information from the saintly and the pure of heart, the entire enterprise might as well become "The View."
In a sense, O'Heihr is right: A principle is at stake here, and an important one. I'm the son of a journalist, and remember being told late one night not to worry if the police came by to take my father away, because the babysitter would be by. Seriously - I wasn't to worry that my father was going to jail, because he'd called the sitter. Okay, my father wasn't always the most perceptive parent.

However, my father was willing to go to jail over one of his stories, and he had used an anonymous source who had given him information that was restricted. (Without going in to the details, let me just say that the story is one most Canadian families would know, and one that was absolutely worth my father going to jail if that was necesary for the story being told.) But this is exactly the point - this was a story that a) needed to be told, and b) could only be told by using an anonymous source, or not at all.

The case of Plamegate and Judy Miller is almost the exact opposite - leaking a CIA agent's name was totally unnecessary and unethical (not to mention illegal) and should not have been published, certainly not while giving the traitor anonymity. It's hard to imagine in this day when hardly a single story is written without an anonymous source, but this is a special privilege, not a blanket right. And it's never absolute.

If journalists want the protection of "principles" than they have to live up to them. It's doesn't get any simpler than that.

2 comments:

Beau said...

"It's hard to imagine in this day when hardly a single story is written without an anonymous source"

Well, you know this isn't true. Everyone likes hyperbole, but at the end of the day, most stories -- as has always been true -- are written without anything of the sort. Anonymous sources have been, and remain, an uncommonly used tool.

Now, I won't argue that in the Internet Age, where exceptional news stories are available to essentially the entire planet instantly, those uncommon stories aren't seen much more often than they once would have been by someone in another city, state or country. But by their nature, they're exceptional, and that's one of the reasons non-locals would be exposed to them. No one in another country really cares about what happened in some town's planning commission meeting, typically.

"If journalists want the protection of "principles" than they have to live up to them. It's doesn't get any simpler than that."

They should live up to them. Absolutely. But they should also fight to retain them. Earning (or retaining, depending on your point of view) the moral right to use anonymous sources won't do a lot of good if what legal protections are recognized are swept away in the meantime.

john said...

"Well, you know this isn't true. Everyone likes hyperbole, but at the end of the day, most stories -- as has always been true -- are written without anything of the sort."

I was being unclear - sorry. It would have been more correct (or less wrong) to say that most stories coming from Washington use anonymous sources - even when it is entirely unnecessary. Atrios has been keeping a running tab of articles which use anonymity for no reason, and I find it doubtful that he's caught them all. This does, however, seem to be a syndrome limited to the national political scene.

I totally agree that journalists have to fight to protect their principles. It's just that it's hard for me to see what's going on in the Plame case as defending the principles, rather than a defense of the abuse of power.