Thursday, July 07, 2005

A journalist in jail... in America?

I haven't yet waded into the whole Miller-Cooper-Plame saga, except to address Karl Rove's possible role as leaker, but check out Kevin Drum's thoughtful take on what it's all about. His conclusion is right on the mark:

[T]here's at least one thing everyone should agree on: we need a federal shield law. I happen to think reporters need greater protection, and you might think they need less, but in either case we ought to spell it out instead of making reporters and courts guess. Let's argue it out in Congress and then pass something that makes it clear what counts as "journalism," what protection sources can expect, and exactly how far prosecutors can go. If there are exceptions for specific criminal acts, so be it.

But let's at least nail it down. There's no excuse not to.

Journalists may not be infallible, but they need certain protections to do their jobs properly. They do their jobs for us, after all, and however much they may be vilified by both the left and the right in today's blame-the-messenger political climate, it's hard to imagine how democracy could survive without them.

(For the latest on the story, see here.)

Bookmark and Share


  • I agree there needs to be a federal shield law. But it needs to be a limited shield. Journalists seem to make the case that they need an unlimited exemption from ever revealing their sources and that it should be up to them to decide the scope. I disagree strongly. I think that the press doesn't have a leg to stand on in this particular case. This was not a whistleblower trying to provide information that the government was trying to cover up. This was someone arguably using the press to commit a felony in order to get political retribution against the administration's critics. There was no public interest in the press revealing Valerie Plame's name; in fact, it was just the opposite, the public was actually harmed by the revelation. The idea that the press should get some sort of protection for this kind of behavior and kudos for protecting the identity of a criminal is ludicrous.

    I understand that a whistleblower could be a lawbreaker as well. That's why there should be some protections. But it should not be absolute and journalists should be subject to court rulings just as any other citizen would be.

    The idea that the press' interest in supposedly exposing government secrets is so important that it trumps every other societal interest, including the efficient working of the judicial process is sanctimonious and arrogant. Frankly, I think Judith Miller should be in jail--who the hell is she to decide that her "journalistic integrity" outweighs the law? Maybe she is trying to compensate for her incompetence in her pre-war reporting on the WMD.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:42 AM  

  • I've never much cared for Miller, but I'm not sure that she should be in jail. After all, erring on the side of caution should be the rule, and protecting sources, even in dubious cases like this one, is more important, I think, than forcing a journalist to reveal his or her source.

    Still, I see your point. Either way, we need a clear shield law that sets out the rules of the game before it starts...

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:10 PM  

  • I think the court had little choice here. It had issued an order that she refused to obey. If the judge didn't jail her, it would be essentially saying that the court is powerless to enforce its own orders. (Of course, it's likely to be ineffective anyway given the limit on how long Miller can be jailed.) Given the lack of a federal shield law and the apparent need for the evidence, I don't see how the judge could have not sent Miller to jail--she's in contempt of court.

    You say that protecting sources is more important than forcing the reporter to reveal her sources. I disagree, at least based on what I know about the case. If the person that leaked Valery Plame's identity violated the law, especially if it was someone in the administration trying to retaliate against her husband, I think the public interest in identifying and prosecuting that person outweighs the interest in protecting his identity, especially given that this was not some whistleblower trying to expose government wrongdoing. This was someone who was specifically using the press to further his political agenda.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:06 PM  

  • Oh, I agree with you that the court had no choice. The legal system must have teeth, after all, and, given the lack of a clear shield law that sets out the parameters of using anonymous sources, a limited jail term is the consequence of being in contempt of court.

    Honestly, you've got me here, though. I'm not sure I can disagree with your assessment. Indeed, I suppose I can only agree with today's Times editorial:

    "[Miller] is surrendering her liberty in defense of a greater liberty, granted to a free press by the founding fathers so journalists can work on behalf of the public without fear of regulation or retaliation from any branch of government.

    "Some people - including, sadly, some of our colleagues in the news media - have mistakenly assumed that a reporter and a news organization place themselves above the law by rejecting a court order to testify. Nothing could be further from the truth. When another Times reporter, M. A. Farber, went to jail in 1978 rather than release his confidential notes, he declared, 'I have no such right and I seek none.'

    "By accepting her sentence, Ms. Miller bowed to the authority of the court. But she acted in the great tradition of civil disobedience that began with this nation's founding, which holds that the common good is best served in some instances by private citizens who are willing to defy a legal, but unjust or unwise, order."

    I'll have more to say about this in an upcoming post... But, Marc, I look forward to your continued comments on this subject. I find myself somewhat torn, and your argument is persuasive.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 8:10 PM  

  • Michael,

    I don't think the issue is clear-cut. There are certainly valid reasons for having a shield law. And I agree there should be a federal shield law. I certainly agree that the press has a vital role to play. But informing the public is not the only vital public interest. There is also an interest in having valid laws enforced and protecting the safety of our agents (although I don't think Valerie Plame was ever in any danger).

    I think this is an especially bad case for the press to fall on its shield. Whoever told Miller about Plame wasn't trying to expose government wrongdoing, he was simply looking for political payback. What reason does the press have to preserve confidentiality for a source whose only purpose is to break the law. For the Times to see this as some sort of important principle reeks to me of arrogance and sanctimony. And the Times would have you believe that this is civil disobedience in the tradition of the civil rights movement or something. That's nonsense.

    I'm not saying that the case doesn't present difficult issues. But that's mostly because of the incompetence of Miller and Cooper. What the hell are they doing providing assurances of confidentiality to someone whose sole purpose is to break the law? The result of this can only be to hurt the credibility of the media, which is already low. IMO, the way the Times has handled this has created a terrible problem for both the courts and the press.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:53 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home