Monday, October 11, 2004

The Gray Lady Doth Protest Too Much

I don't have much of an opinion on whether the First Amendment allows journalists to be jailed for refusing to disclose their sources. But yesterday's op-ed from the chairman and CEO of the New York Times is interesting.

It talks about how Times reporter Judy Miller is facing jail time for refusing to respond to a subpoena in the criminal investigation of the government officials who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. So here's the Times' argument about why Miller shouldn't have to give information about White House officials who called her to talk about Plame:

The founders of our democracy understood that our government was also a human institution that was capable of mistakes and misdeeds. That is why they constructed a First Amendment that would give the press the ability to investigate problems in the official branches of our government and make them known to the public. In this way, the press was sensibly put in a position to help hold government accountable to its citizens.

An essential tool that the press must have if it is to perform its job is the ability to gather and receive information in confidence from those who would face reprisals for bringing important information about our government into the light of day for all of us to examine. Without an enforceable promise of confidentiality, sources would quickly dry up and the press would be left largely with only official government pronouncements to report.

Right! That sounds great. But in this case, Judy Miller is going to jail -- as best I can tell -- for refusing to expose government wrongdoing. The government is going after her here because she isn't "bringing important information about our government into the light of day." It's a little harder to be sympathetic when the press is actually protecting government officials who've misused their authority and their access to the press.

And I know, reporters are going to have to promise confidentiality to their sources. How about we just add another term to that contract: if you call me with confidential info, I'll go to jail to protect you, but if you call me looking to leak a national secret in order to retaliate against a political enemy, that's a story, and I'm going to report it. If you abuse the process and exploit confidentiality, expect to get burned.

Besides, it's nice to see the Times all up in arms about the duty to expose government wrongdoing, but it'd be a lot nicer to have seen it when we were all being scammed on WMDs.

Sometimes I get the feeling the press is suffering from a sort of collective Sucker Guilt -- they know they've been used to convey all sorts of misinformation, from WMDs and Saddam/9-11 links to the Swift Boat garbage, and every once in a while they spring up with a belated, and often irrelevant, defense of the Fourth Estate's sacred role in our democracy. That's great and everything, but how about just asking some tough questions once in a while?