Sources worth protecting

October 02, 2005

Perhaps the best result to come out of the perplexing affair of jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller is that it provided a revealing glimpse of how journalism in Washington works.

After a lengthy federal probe into the leak that outed a CIA operative married to a Bush administration critic, the two sources who emerged were top aides to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

That's par for the course in a town where the confidential, unnamed sources and tipsters behind so many news accounts of political or bureaucratic intrigue are aides to senior officials - or the officials themselves - who hide behind anonymity to promote their own interests and undermine their opponents.

It's regrettable that the case didn't reinforce Ms. Miller's legal position that she was protected by the First Amendment from being compelled to identify sources to whom she had promised confidentiality. Journalists cannot perform their investigative and watchdog functions effectively without the help of informed insiders, many of whom could lose their jobs or even have their physical safety threatened if their identities were revealed.

But all too often in Washington, reporters are not protecting courageous whistleblowers but political gossips who exploit the competitive drive for scoops to demand secrecy in return for the most routine information. Frequently administration officials brief whole rooms full of reporters on a "background, not for attribution" basis. Most galling is the president or other top official who rails away about leaks when insiders all know they are coming from his closest advisors.

Such cozy arrangements, which typically leave only the reader or viewer in the dark, demean First Amendment protections and their critical value to democracy.

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