Sunday, October 23, 2005

Where's your hero martyr now?

When Judy Miller of the New York Times was sent to prison for refusing to testify in Patrick Fitzgerald's probe into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name, a lot of people lauded her as a hero, including professional journalists who should have known better.

When the door was locked behind Miss Judy and people starting calling her a First Amendment hero for refusing to reveal her source, I said "bullshit." I said she wasn't protecting some whistleblower who feared reprisal for coming forward with imformation, she was protecting a partisan operative who was using anonymity to punish a political opponent without having his or her (as it turned out, his) name associated with the attack. There's a difference.

Often that comment was met with sideways glances and dismissal. After all, the herd was choosing its side, and I was sounding a dissonant note.

Miller supporters argued that confidential sources are valuable because sometimes it's the only way some people will stick their necks out to share information that's valuable to the public good.

Well, no shit. But how is the name of Joe Wilson's wife valuable to the public good?

These days, those journalists don't talk about Judy Miller much. Even the Times has turned on its First Amendment hero. Take Maureen Dowd's take:

Judy admitted in the story that she "got it totally wrong" about WMD "If your sources are wrong," she said, "you are wrong." But investigative reporting is not stenography.

It also doesn't seem credible that Judy wouldn't remember a Marvel comics name like "Valerie Flame." Nor does it seem credible that she doesn't know how the name got into her notebook and that, as she wrote, she "did not believe the name came from Mr. Libby."

Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover "the same thing I've always covered - threats to our country." If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.
In case you, like so many professional journalists, are late arriving at this conclusion, a promise of confidentiality should not have been given in this case. And when did the source get to decide what's on and off the record? When did sources start deciding what you print and what you don't? Journalists decide what's on and off the record, and based on that, sources decide what they're going to reveal. Just because someone tells you, "this is off the record" doesn't bind you to anything. As soon as you hear a source tell you what you can and can't use, tell the source that nothing he or she tells you is off the record. You'd be suprised how often sources will keep talking anyway. They're not talking to a reporter because they have nothing to say.

Now who's protecting journalists' rights? Me or Judy Miller?

I've met many bright people who make their living in journalism, and I'd like to say that the ones who have impressed me with their skills and intelligence outnumber the ones who make me wonder how they ever got where they are. But the two groups are running about neck and neck these days (of course, I used to work for the Journal Register Company, so maybe that's not entirely fair).

It must mean something that some of the brightest journalists I know have left the profession. True, for some it was a money issue. But others were idealists who became disillusioned at the way corners are cut in the name of saving money, protecting an advertiser from bad pub or reflecting the publisher's political leanings. No kid chooses journalism school because he or she wants to be a tool for a corporation with an agenda and a media outlet.

Before you start telling me that there are plenty of journalists out there doing good old-school digging and getting important information in front of readers, I agree, there are. But tell me which way the trend is heading.


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