Ethics, not politics, prompts journalist to make her stand

July 08, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal a source in the drama of the CIA agent "outed" by a leak to columnist Robert Novak has split the journalism community wide open.

Ms. Miller's incarceration is defended by some in the news business who say nobody, even a star or celebrity journalist, has a right to defy a direct order by a court. Her jailing is excoriated by others who say a reporter has an ethical obligation to protect a confidential source at all costs.

This is one of those rare cases in which there are strong arguments on both sides. In a companion case, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper was saved from similar jail time by his publisher. He ruled that Mr. Cooper's notes in the same drama should be turned over to the federal prosecutor, and Mr. Cooper, reluctantly, he said, finally agreed to reveal his source when that source released him of his confidentiality pledge.

Those decisions enabled Mr. Cooper to stay on the street while not entirely shedding the cloak of martyr to journalistic principle, leaving Ms. Miller to wear it alone in this case.

Meanwhile, Mr. Novak, who printed the leak he received revealing the name of the CIA spy, Valerie Plame, has refused to say even whether he has been subpoenaed or has sung to the grand jury. That he remains free, however, suggests he has not bucked the prosecutor.

The leak of Ms. Plame's name led her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, to write an op-ed article alleging the leak was in retaliation for his having challenged President Bush's earlier claim that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger for making a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, has acknowledged through his lawyer that he spoke with Mr. Cooper but said he did not name Ms. Plame to him. Nevertheless, Mr. Rove's reputation as an official who has often dealt with reporters on a confidentiality basis has continued to make him suspect, especially in the minds of his political foes.

Bill Israel, a former teaching colleague of Mr. Rove at the University of Texas and now a journalism teacher at the University of Massachusetts, has charged on the Internet that Mr. Rove has duped reporters into protecting him in the guise of defending their First Amendment rights.

"Rove, improving on Machiavelli," Mr. Israel wrote, "has bet that reporters won't rat their relationship with the administration's most important political source. How better for him to operate without constraint, or to camouflage breaking the law, than under the cover of journalists and journalism, protected by the First Amendment?"

That observation assumes that Mr. Rove did the leaking. Ms. Miller, however, in deciding to go to jail rather than reveal her source, is dealing with a personal, ethical question rather than a political one.

In the Iran-contra case of the Ronald Reagan years, White House secretary Fawn Hall famously uttered her own edict that sometimes it was necessary to be "above the law." Ms. Miller is not saying that.

Rather, to give her the best of it, she is using the journalistic version of the honorable act of principled civil disobedience of the civil rights era. Then, many protesters against racial segregation and discrimination, white and black, knowingly broke unjust laws in the South and went to jail for doing so.

It can be argued that the stakes then were much higher and the goal sought much greater. And, no one was suggesting that the protesters were unwitting dupes, although diehard segregationists did castigate those jailed as troublemaking rabble-rousers.

In the Miller case, her defense of the confidentiality pledge may indeed be risking her being used by her source. But as long as she is willing to pay the legal price, she is not saying as Fawn Hall did that she considers herself above the law. Instead, she is standing on an important principle in the field to which she has dedicated herself for many years, with her employer resolutely behind her.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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