News sources cloud the issue

Analysis

July 08, 2005|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN STAFF

The jailing of Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, may not strike the average citizen as anything to get excited about. The issues are arcane, the players are mostly obscure Washington insiders, and, in many people's minds, journalists barely command the kind of respect afforded a dog catcher.

But within the world of journalism, there are many who feel that Miller's refusal, even under threat of imprisonment, to reveal the name of a source to whom she had promised anonymity was nothing short of heroic.

"Under tough circumstances, she stuck to her pledge and said that if it means going to jail, it means going to jail," said Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review. "We all take very seriously our pledge of confidentiality, and to violate that pledge is very bad for journalism."

On the AJR Web site, Rieder began his column yesterday with the words, "Judith Miller is an American hero."

The case of Miller and her colleague Matthew Cooper of Time magazine - who avoided jail by saying his source had freed him from his promise of anonymity - has attracted an enormous amount of attention because it raises the kinds of constitutional issues that always accompany confrontations between the government and the press.

Nevertheless, a question persists: Was this a case to go to jail for? To those for whom principle is all, the answer is yes. But to those who feel that the people Miller and Cooper were protecting were simply partisan players out for revenge, the answer is absolutely not.

The first category has many adherents, primarily because of the widespread belief among reporters and editors that much vital information would be kept from the public were it not for confidential leaks. The fear is that sources accustomed to hiding safely behind anonymity when they divulge sensitive information will balk at risking it again for fear that a threat of jail will cause reporters to blow their cover. The result could be a decrease in the ranks of whistleblowers, the kind of people who keep society honest.

"Judy Miller is the perfect embodiment of journalistic principle that reporters are not stool pigeons," Walter Shapiro, a veteran political reporter, wrote for Slate.com.

At stake in the current case, he said, "is nothing less than reporters standing for principle against an out-of-control prosecutor who seems to have lost his sense of proportion."

Miller's fate was sealed on Wednesday after she refused for a final time to identify a Bush administration source who told her the name of a covert CIA agent. She has garnered support even from journalists who criticized her reporting for The Times on the Bush administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq when she relied largely on information, later discredited, from unidentified sources.

Others were not so sympathetic. Rosa Brooks, a law professor and former State Department negotiator in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times in which she said that Miller's scoops on the alleged presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction "relied on information provided by the very folks who were also cooking the books."

"Should Miller have refused to offer anonymity to all those `high-level' sources who sold us a bill of goods on Iraq? Yes," Brooks wrote.

In any event, Brooks said, Miller was under "no obligation to go to jail to cover for a sleazeball."

Brooks was referring to sources in the Bush administration who told Miller, Cooper, Robert Novak and possibly other journalists the name of the undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, apparently to get back at her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a diplomat who had criticized President Bush's policies and statements about Iraq.

"If a source with a clear political motivation passes along classified information that has no value for public debate but would endanger the career, and possibly the life, of a covert agent, is a journalist ethically permitted to `out' the no-good sneak?" she asked. "You bet."

Rieder agreed.

"It's a very ugly case," he said. "Perhaps in hindsight you could argue that that confidentiality should not have been granted. At the same time, we don't know what was said before the source went off the record. If they'd said, `Look, I want to smear Wilson's wife,' you might not have granted confidentiality. But once you grant it, you stick to it."

At its base, the case is about trust, he said. "A lot of important stories have been brought to light thanks to anonymous sources, said Rieder, who revealed that a poll taken by AJR and the First Amendment Center and set for publication in the magazine's August-September issue shows "substantial support for the notion that reporters should be allowed to protect a confidential source."

Still, there does not appear to be a groundswell of public support for Miller or reporters in general.

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