Some of us went to the Charles Theatre the other night to see Good Night, and Good Luck, a movie about a distant era when people still had faith in reporters. This is only part of the problem today. Now reporters have to have faith in ourselves.
Good Night, and Good Luck is about Edward R. Murrow's famous CBS broadcast on the scurrilous tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Murrow was lucky. He could break out the video and let McCarthy hang by his own outrageous bile. Today, the political Machiavellis are smarter. They hide in the shadows and whisper lies into the ears of reporters, leaving it to the poor, hungry saps to believe the lies and spread them in public.
And then, in an act of complete self-destruction, these duped reporters hide their sources' identities even after they find out they've been suckered - while the sound of muffled laughter can be heard from the political inner circles.
Today, we await word on possible indictments of Karl Rove, who is George W. Bush's brain, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who is Dick Cheney's lap dog. They were telling lies to some of the most prominent reporters in Washington - and some indefensible truths, as well.
The truths were designed to out a covert CIA operative named Valerie Plame. It did not matter that this could endanger Plame's life, the lives of those with whom she dealt, and any national security issues on which she worked. To those who leaked her name, all that mattered was that her husband was a pain in the neck for blowing the whistle on White House war lies, and thus he and his wife had to be punished.
But the lies that were told were even worse. They helped launch this war in which 2,000 American soldiers have been killed, thousands more injured, tens of thousands of Iraqis slaughtered - and a world that embraced America in the embers of Sept. 11 now scorns us.
At the Charles the other night, the big theater was packed and the crowd cheered loudly when Murrow stood over the discredited McCarthy. The film was shot in black and white. In half-century hindsight, the issues, too, seemed black and white.
They rarely are. For weeks, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald was vilified in press circles for urging that New York Times reporter Judith Miller be put in jail. She spent 85 days there. He wanted her to reveal names of sources, and she said no. Those of us so terribly upset over this still hadn't figured out how to play by the new rules, in which politicians have learned to manipulate our good intentions into a sword on which we fall.
In the old rules, you protected sources because they gave you inside information about abuse by those in power. You protected the source out of a combination of morality and practicality. Morally, you owed anonymity to someone risking a career, or a maybe a life, to expose the bad guys. Practically, it was sometimes the only way to get such information.
In the new rules, though, those in power figured out a new way to play the game: Hey, if reporters refuse to reveal the names of confidential sources, we can become their sources. And we can tell them anything we want. Not only will they believe us (because we're prominent government officials) but nobody will ever know we're the ones telling the lies, because reporters have promised to protect their sources.
In Good Night, and Good Luck, we see Edward R. Murrow when TV news still had visions of great seriousness. Murrow took hard looks at political corruption, at poverty, at war. In modern TV, we have reporters thinking they've got a great scoop by telling a waiting nation that grand jury members in Washington have now broken for lunch.
But newspaper reporters have always been different. When modern TV anchors announce their station "has learned" something, what they usually mean is: They've learned it from reading the morning newspaper, whose reporters have actual sources.
But those sources reached out to reporter Judith Miller, and fed her lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The information was wrong. They also knew the power of her newspaper, The New York Times, and knew Miller wouldn't tell where she got her information.
Then the people behind the leaks took it one sinister step further. Having planted stories in the paper, they sent out those such as Cheney, the vice president of the United States, to make the case on Sunday morning talk shows such as Meet the Press.
Hey, you don't have to believe me about weapons of mass destruction, Cheney could then say (and did). It's in The New York Times today. And only Cheney and a few flunkies knew the truth of it: His people had planted it in the Times.
So we need an update on the new rules on protection of sources. Of course we'll protect you, we should tell them - as long as you're telling me the truth. If it turns out you've lied to me, there's no more protection. Because, the last time we fell for lies, it helped put this country into a terrible war.
And it's too late now to protect the ones who really needed it - those thousands who have lost their lives because of the lying.