Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Back to Media Criticism

Big news today in the Valerie Plame leak saga. As you likely already know, the New York Times' Judith Miller is going to jail, while TIME's Matt Cooper has agreed to testify about his anonymous source.

Fort Wayne may seem like a far cry from these kind of big journalistic issues (it is), but this particular case, which no doubt is going to be part of journalism school curricula for years to come, is probably good subject matter for a FWMN post.

First, let's acknowledge that investigative reporters in Fort Wayne are not dealing with things as serious as secret sources outing CIA agents, etc. So it's hard to project this case onto the Fort Wayne media scene. But the principles at work here are, I think, transferable.

Let's talk about anonymous sources. Just last week I was interviewed by an enterprising young reporter. He asked me a question. I asked to go "off the record." (Hey, at least I didn't ask him to meet me in a parking lot late at night and call me "Deep Throat.") I told him some things, then he steered me back on the record. I wasn't necessarily doing it to be an anonymous source, but more to provide him with some background information without him quoting me on it.

I've never been a professional journalist (save for one time, which I might write about here in the future), but I think there are few cases where sources really need to be anonymous. Whistle-blowers, yes. That one seems pretty cut-and-dried. But what about someone telling a reporter something that he doesn't want to be quoted on because it might make his boss mad, or he might get fired for leaking? Maybe he shouldn't be telling a reporter that in the first place. It might not be music to reporters ears, but I don't think "the story" trumps all.

But the rules have changed, too. Many publications allow the use of anonymous sources in their stories without any on-the-record corroboration. It's one thing to get a lead from a protected source; it's quite another to base an entire story solely on something they whispered in your ear.

So what about the Plame case? The law is a bit murky, but outing a covert CIA operative is a federal offense, which, in my opinion, supersedes any kind of reporter/source privilege (which doesn't exist, if not in Judith Miller's eyes, than in the eyes of the law). I don't think that being a reporter makes you above the law, just like I don't think being a judge makes you above the law.

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