Serving their sources or the public?

Journalists drawing fire for off-the-record dealings

February 11, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Staff

The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, and recent disclosures about the relationship of CNBC's Maria Bartiromo with a banking executive are shining a harsh light on the sometimes overly symbiotic relationships between reporters and their sources.

In the Libby trial, some of Washington's highest-profile journalists -- including NBC's Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, and Judith Miller, formerly with The New York Times -- have been forced to explain under oath the intricacies of their off-the-record dealings with White House officials, something that normally stays well hidden.

Bartiromo, a 39-year-old financial reporter and anchor, has faced questions from other journalists about her relationship with Citigroup's Todd Thomson, which led to his ouster last month as chief of the bank's wealth management unit. Her job has so far been unaffected.

While reporters who cover politicians and corporate executives have little choice but to cultivate confidential sources to cover their beats properly, journalism critics say that some of those relationships are too cozy, too self-serving and, ultimately, harmful to the notion of a free press.

John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, a media watchdog group, said "star" journalists and government officials "go to the same parties" and "rely on each other in many ways that are invisible to the public, that often involve trading favors mutually beneficial to their careers in the media or in government."

Stauber, the co-author, with Sheldon Rampton, of The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq (Tarcher, 2006), said the Iraq war was possible only "because most of the mainstream media became like a propaganda arm of the Bush administration" and failed to point out that "the best available evidence indicated no relationship between Saddam and 9/11, no relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda, and no active WMD program in Iraq."

While some journalists did question the Bush administration's justifications for the war, the perception remains that, to retain their access to high-profile White House sources, the Washington press corps largely did not delve into why administration officials seemed intent on revealing the identity of an undercover CIA officer whose husband was a prominent critic of President Bush's Iraq policies.

That question is at the heart of the Libby trial. He is facing perjury and obstruction charges in connection with the probe into the leak of the CIA agent's name to several reporters, including The Washington Post's Bob Woodward; Matt Cooper, formerly of Time magazine; and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak, who was the first to reveal the agent's identity in print.

As media critic Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the Libby trial's "unintended seminar in contemporary journalism" shows that Cheney and his staff believe that truth is malleable and that they knew some members of the Washington press corps would "cynically accommodate that belief for the sake of their careers."

"It's a sick little arrangement," Rutten wrote, "in which the parties clearly have one thing in common: a profound indifference to both the common good and to their obligation to act in its service."

Bob Steele, a senior faculty member in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the Libby case "may be one of those where veteran journalists are prone to too easily and too quickly give the protection of confidentiality" to a source.

"Sometimes it happens out of a sense of familiarity and the kind of give-and-take relationship between a reporter and a government official, a law enforcement officer, the coach of a team or a business executive -- someone the journalist covers regularly," Steele said. But such protection "should be well down on the list of options that the journalist chooses for gaining information," he said.

Either way, he went on, the use of anonymous sources "diminishes the accuracy of a story if names are not included," and "reduces the accountability of the source, particularly if the source is making allegations."

In Bartiromo's case, some of the questions centered on speaking engagements she undertook at Citigroup events and on trips she made on a Citigroup corporate jet at Thomson's invitation. The network says it reimbursed Citigroup for the flights' cost and says her activities were proper. Since 2004, Bartiromo has aired 11 major pieces on Citigroup, including four interviews with Thomson, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

"Was her independence and that of CNBC eroded because of the multiple connections Bartiromo had with Todd Thomson?" Steele asked. "There are reasonable questions to be asked about her journalistic independence."

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