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By Candida Bohnne-Eittreim
Journalists have always claimed the right to protect their sources from exposure. One of the most notable cases was the Ellsburg Papers which led to the Watergate Scandal. That particular story was covered by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who tried to protect Daniel Ellsberg from disclosing how he came into possession of certain documents. This scenario is common to journalists who are investigating a major piece of ethical wrongdoing in governmental affairs. But the question here is, When should a journalist reveal sources, and under which circumstances?
Let’s look at Judith Miller, deeply involved in the Valerie Plame case. In this case. Ms. Miller had long been looked at with suspicion and disgust by those convinced the Iraq War was an orchestrated event. Miller, who ultimately was jailed 85 days for her refusal to disclose to Special Investigator Patrick J. Fitzgerald her knowledge of the Plame affair and who she had spoken to about it. Her employer, the N.Y.Times, had already aided her co-defendant Matthew Cooper, who agreed to testify before the Grand Jury, thereby avoiding Miller’s fate.
The whole scandal, dubbed by some as Treasongate, involved the disclosure of a C.I.A. operative’s covert name and status. This leak cost an intelligent and very able C.I.A. employee of long standing to lose her job, and live under constant fear for the lives of her twin toddlers and herself. Tragically, Ms. Plame herself, was only a tool used to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson had made enemies within the Administration, by his disclosure that the alleged sale of yellowcake uranium to Iraq had never taken place. After handing in an administrative report, and understanding after a period of time that this report didn’t suit the prevailing mindset, he went public July 6, 2003, criticizing the Administration’s stand in the N.Y. Times. He followed this by an appearance on Meet The Press. Three days later, Ms. Plame was outed publicly.
In the Ellsberg case, there was a definite and reasonable need for Woodward and Bernstein to protect their source. The circumstances surrounding the Watergate Scandal exposed definite misuse of Executive powers, and could have endangered Ellsberg’s life. In the second case, Valerie Plame wasn’t involved in anything germane to the leak, other than her being married to Joseph Wilson.
The leaking of the information concerning N.S.A. use of wiretaps in covert ops against foreign nationals within the U.S. is another example of invoking journalistic privilege. The N.Y. Times sat on this story for one year, allegedly at the behest of President Bush. Which is in many reasonable minds pure nonsense. As of this point in time, the N.Y. Times has not offered any other source for their information.
Are the above-mentioned cases examples of when a representative of the media has gone too far in protecting sources? I believe they are. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, wrote in response to N.Y. Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., in part:” that even though Time magazine surrendered Cooper’s notes in the case, the journalist’s testimony is still needed in the investigation.
“First, Cooper’s own article noted that the conduct of the officials involved an attack on an administration critic, not whistle-blowing,” Fitzgerald wrote.
“Second, at a time when journalists seek a reporter’s privilege akin to the attorney-client privilege, they ought to recognize that an attorney can be compelled to testify if his client communicates to the attorney for the purpose of committing a crime or fraud. … Third, journalists are not entitled to promise complete confidentiality – no one in America is.”
Here in a nutshell is the crux of the argument. Responsible journalists protect sources who are whistleblowing, exposing corruption or otherwise helping to better our society, by exposing corporate/governmental wrongdoings. They cross the line when they help hide sources who have damaged or attacked reputations for political reasons, participated in major crimes, or endangered the nation’s security by the disclosure of highly classified information. When this occurs, it can come close to treason or at the very least aiding and abetting of our nation’s enemies.
The pen is mightier than the sword in a writer’s hands. And that weapon must be used with respect and care where it concerns the laws of the land and the lives of others. Responsible and ethical journalists and commentators understand this well. It is unfortunate that so many others don’t understand they are not above the law because of what they do.