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Every time a reporter who has promised confidentiality to a source then hands over his or her notebooks or other materials involving that source to a government agency, the press—the entire press in this country—gets weaker. It creates a precedent and renders us less able to deliver independent information to the public. It’s as simple as that.
Last week, Time Inc. weakened the press. It decided to turn over Time reporter Matthew Cooper’s notes and other materials to a federal prosecutor. The prosecutor has been investigating the White House leak of a CIA operative’s name, Valerie Plame, which put her and her overseas contacts at physical risk. The reported White House motive was a desire to discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador in Africa. Wilson, on a special assignment for the CIA, had concluded that one of the Bush administration’s prime rationales for going to war in Iraq—that Iraq had sought to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger for nuclear weapons—was probably a fiction. Later it was revealed that the Bush claim had been based on forged documents.
The Time Inc. editor in chief, Norman Pearlstine, used noble language to try to disguise the damage he and the Time corporate leaders had done, but the sound was hollow. He said Time would continue “to support the protection of confidential sources” but insisted that the Supreme Court’s decision not to give the case a hearing left the company no choice but to turn over reporter Cooper’s notes. “We are not above the law,” Pearlstine said in a CNN interview. No, of course not. But sometimes, our history tells us, when a good citizen believes the law is acting wrongly, he can oppose it with respectful civil disobedience and accept the consequences, including going to jail. Does Thoreau come to mind, Norm? Or do you find Thoreau quaint? One more thing: From now on, what source will take seriously a promise of confidentiality from a Time Inc. reporter?
Pearlstine explained, in his corporate statement, “We believe that our decision to provide the special prosecutor with the subpoenaed records obviates the need for Matt Cooper to testify and certainly removes any justification for incarceration.” (Time is also facing sizable fines.) Cooper and another reporter, Judith Miller of The New York Times, who is still withholding her notes and refusing to name her sources, face up to four months of confinement for contempt of court.
The New York Times swiftly took issue with Time Inc.’s action. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the Times, said in a statement: “We are deeply disappointed by Time Inc.’s decision to deliver the subpoenaed records. We faced similar pressures in 1978 when both our reporter Myron Farber and the Times Company were held in contempt of court for refusing to provide the names of confidential sources. Mr. Farber served 40 days in jail and we were forced to pay significant fines. Our focus is now on our own reporter, Judith Miller, and in supporting her during this difficult time.”
Time reporter Matthew Cooper also disagreed with his bosses’ decision, but he granted them absolution. He told The Wall Street Journal: “A corporation is not the same thing as an individual. They have different responsibilities and obligations and there is no dishonor obeying a lawful order backed with the force of the Supreme Court. . . . I prefer they not hand over documents that disclose the identity of my sources, but that’s their decision to make.”
Confidential sources will always be crucial to serious journalism. People in high places who know that abuses have occurred but want to avoid reprisals from the guilty parties will usually not come forward to reporters unless they are guaranteed anonymity. “Deep Throat”—Mark Felt—is an obvious example. The Watergate scandal wouldn’t have been fully exposed without him and other anonymous sources.
All of us in the journalism world know that anonymous sources are used in excess these days—for instance, to allow people to hurl insults from behind a mask. Major newspapers are taking steps to curtail frivolous or lazy usage. Reform is necessary. But this is no reason to cave in when anonymous sources are used legitimately.
This White House leak case has baffled Washington as has no other court saga in recent memory. The special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has been unusually tight-lipped with information, even refusing to give defense lawyers copies of witness depositions that would be forthcoming in cases of less notoriety. One might guess that he is citing national security, since a CIA operative is involved. But it would only be a guess. The whole case is a nest of assumptions, speculation, paradoxes, and missing facts.
Here are a few of the puzzles. Cooper and Miller, the two journalists convicted of contempt, had nothing to do with the outing of Valerie Plame. Miller didn’t even write a story; she only made some telephone calls with the thought of writing one. Cooper has already identified one of his sources, I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby freed Cooper from his promise of confidentiality.
The reporter who received the leak and put it in print was Robert Novak, a Washington press elder with right-of-center views who has a syndicated column and is a political analyst for CNN. His column of July 14, 2003, said that “two senior administration officials” had told him that Valerie Plame was “an agency operative.” That column came a week after an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, had discounted the White House’s Niger uranium story.
Novak has been even more tight-lipped than Fitzgerald. Neither has ever revealed whether Novak has cooperated with the inquiry or even been subpoenaed or charged or is a target of any kind. There has been speculation that Novak’s sources may have already revealed themselves to the prosecutor, which would have freed the reporter from his compact with them. Novak says his attorneys have limited his remarks.
He did make some minimal comments last week, saying that nothing he had done was responsible for the situation Cooper and Miller were in. He said he would tell all in a column after the case was resolved.
Will anyone but a reporter or two go to jail for this politically motivated disclosure of an intelligence agent’s identity? Don’t ask. This is a soap opera. Tune in tomorrow.
Only one thing is certain in this two-year-old farce. The press has suffered another wound. Will anyone own up that the wound is partly self-inflicted from a failure to stand firm on core principles?