Saturday, February 11, 2006

Does anyone at the New York Times think these things out?

OK this story is a howler on a few levels. On the one hand you wonder if they're going to play the old children's game of "you're getting warmer/you're getting colder" as the inquiry proceeds. The part that jumps out at me is this insightful observation by the Times.

The government's increasing unwillingness to honor confidentiality pledges between journalists and their sources in national security cases has been evident in another case, involving the disclosure in 2003 of the identity of an undercover C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson. The special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, demanded that several journalists disclose their conversations with their sources.

Judith Miller, at the time a reporter for The Times, went to jail for 85 days before agreeing to comply with a subpoena to testify about her conversations with I. Lewis Libby Jr., who was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Libby has been indicted on charges of making false statements and obstruction of justice and has pleaded not guilty.

Gosh do you think some of that unwillingness may have started here in the New York Times? It's entirely possible that Judith Miller was being subpoenaed based on pressure from the New York Times. In that editorial titled "The Journalist & The Whistleblower" Geneva Overholser advocates that in the name of keeping anonymous sources from spreading information that should be illegal to give out, reporters need to get over the absolutist concept of always protecting their sources.

A week later, Mr. Novak wrote a column in which he named Mr. Wilson's wife as a C.I.A. "operative on weapons of mass destruction" and cited "two senior administration officials" saying she had suggested her husband for the Niger job. Revealing the name of an undercover C.I.A. employee is a felony, and the leak is now being investigated by a grand jury.

As a piece of journalism, the Novak column raises disturbing ethical questions. He apparently turned a time-honored use of confidentiality — protecting a whistleblower from government retribution — on its head, delivering government retribution to the whistleblower instead. Worse, he enabled his sources to illegally divulge intelligence information.

Now Mr. Novak may be called to testify before the grand jury. To most in the press, this signals an immediate duty: stand shoulder to shoulder beside a colleague. But before we all jump to his defense, there are two questions journalists should consider: one about what should not happen in the courtroom, the other about what should not happen in the newspaper.

Yes, it is in the public interest to protect journalists from being required to name their sources in the courtroom. But it is also in the public interest for journalists to speak out against ethical lapses in their craft. Far from undermining the principle of confidentiality, our acknowledgment that protecting sources can be used for ill as well as for good can bolster it, reassuring a public that often wonders who is watching the watchdog.

Now it's possible that the Times editorial board will come out with a scathing column demanding that reporters not protect sources that illegally leaked details of the NSA wiretap program, but I won't hold my breath. It certainly seems that this sudden burst of conscience from Ms.Overholser was born in the belief that it might be a good way to cut into a high ranking official in the Bush Whitehouse.

I had an anonymous source on this story, I feel so reporter-like! Oh wait, I'm also semi-anonymous...never mind.

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