Is reporter a hero or merely a shill?

October 21, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Conservative critics usually can't stop jabbering about the "liberal media." Yet the pantheon of punditry on the right has been oddly mute about the amazing service that The New York Times' Judith Miller has performed for the Bush administration's policy of regime change in Iraq.

Boosters of Team Bush should give Ms. Miller a medal.

She recently spent 85 days in a federal detention center for refusing to identify a confidential source. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said her testimony was crucial to his investigation of the Bush administration leak that outed undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Bush White House.

Although Ms. Miller's lawyers had argued that incarcerating her would be futile, since she was not about to give up her source, she eventually cut a deal after she received a personal waiver from a confidential source, who turned out to be I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

All of this and more was recounted by the Times in two articles Sunday that left a lot of unanswered questions. Among them: Is Judith Miller a hero for press freedom or a shill for White House dirty tricksters?

By her own account, she was willing to use her journalism to funnel Mr. Libby's dirt on Mr. Wilson and to conceal where the dirt came from.

Ms. Miller was honored Tuesday with a 1st Amendment Award at the national conference of the Society of Professional Journalists in Las Vegas. She defended her decision to go to jail to protect a source and spoke up for a federal shield law so that other journalists won't face similar sanctions.

But other journalists have characterized Ms. Miller as a possible co-conspirator with the Bush administration in an attempt to discredit Mr. Wilson, who openly questioned the intelligence used to justify the Iraq invasion.

Now, her own account in Sunday's Times describes a July 8, 2003, conversation with Mr. Libby in which he asks to be identified only as a "former Hill staffer." She had agreed earlier to refer to Mr. Libby as a "senior administration official," but Ms. Miller agreed to Mr. Libby's request. Why? Because "Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson," she writes. Yet she went along with the subterfuge.

It wasn't a lie, she rationalizes, since Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill. But what about the ethical question of helping the Bush administration hide its hand in the attack against Mr. Wilson? If ever there was a point where Ms. Miller crossed the line from reporter to accomplice, this was certainly it.

And since the Times has backed up Ms. Miller's reporting and her initial refusal to testify, the Times' good name rides with Ms. Miller's reporting.

"Ultimately we protect sources so people will come forth - so people will know," Ms. Miller told the SPJ. "It is the freedom of people to talk to the press without getting in trouble, it is that right that's under assault today."

She's right, but she has not done much to help it. By cutting a deal to end her jail term early, she encouraged other prosecutors to use reporters to do their work for them, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the early 1970s that prosecutors should turn to journalists only as a last resort.

And what kind of source was Ms. Miller protecting? Mr. Libby does not appear to be a whistle-blower trying to expose internal waste, fraud, abuse or corruption. If anything, the administration was exercising a tactic of smearing its critics in order to suppress information that ran counter to its arguments for war.

What separates this episode of political hardball from the usual political fun and games is the law that appears to have been broken, the outing of a CIA agent and a compromise of national security.

More important is the ultimate issue at stake here, the ability of Americans to be properly informed before their nation goes to war.

Journalists make deals with sources all the time. Reporter Bob Woodward and his editors knew that "Deep Throat" had vested interests in revealing the Watergate scandal to The Washington Post. But the Post editors also knew that the public and history would judge whether the story was worth it. History similarly will judge Ms. Miller and the Times and whether the story they covered was worth the role they played in it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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