Repairing Leaks

Reporters could fill us in on the Plame saga by describing their own roles

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Village Voice, August 2nd, 2005

There has always been a debate over whether journalism is a profession or a craft. A retired and revered editor at The New York Time, Sheldon Binn, offered a third option. He used to remind us regularly that there would be days when we’d feel “like the piano player in a whorehouse.”

I believe journalism is a profession — but that belief has standing only when we regulate and explain ourselves. And those conditions don’t exist often enough.

Take the story in Washington now about the “outing” of a CIA operative’s identity. The press was directly involved in the blowing of Valerie Plame’s cover because the White House used reporters as their conduits for the leak. That led to the current investigation by a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. Under certain circumstances, revealing the identity of an undercover intelligence officer — or disclosing classified information — can be a federal crime. So can perjury or obstruction of justice, both of which may have occurred during the 18-month course of this investigation. A number of reporters and a larger number of Bush officials have given depositions to Fitzgerald or testified before his grand jury. One reporter, Judith Miller of The New York Times, has been jailed for civil contempt for refusing to identify her confidential source or sources. I think she did the right thing, as did the Times for supporting her all the way.

Yet when the investigation concludes, Miller and the other reporters who were caught up in it face another serious issue: Since they played a definite role in the story, will they explain that role to the public, the audience we journalists say we serve? Will they come forward and describe in detail — as reporters do all the time about the participants in events we write about — what transpired, what the reporters told investigators, why they or their employers chose or refused to cooperate with the authorities, and so on? In other words, will they tell their own stories? They can do all this without giving us the names of their confidential sources, which is a serious breach of journalistic ethics and traditions. They can identify the sources as X or Y or Z. They can even release their depositions and grand jury testimony — just excuse the sources’ names.

To date, only two of these reporters have given us some useful insights into the parts they played — Matthew Cooper in a story for Time magazine, where he works in the Washington bureau, and Walter Pincus, a national security reporter for The Washington Post, in a piece for the new issue of Nieman Reports, a quarterly put out by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Even these stories need some fleshing out: What questions did the prosecutor ask you? Will you show us your deposition or grand jury testimony — with the sources’ names and other identifying language blacked out?

Other reporters who cooperated have made some meager comments, which don’t satisfy. One is Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press. Another is Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist and established pipeline for Republican mischief, who published the first story identifying Plame, by name, as a CIA “operative,” on July 14, 2003. He says he’ll tell his side when the case is over. Still, two years is a long time for a reporter to hide the truth.

Walter Pincus, in his Nieman Reports narrative, provided a template for others to follow and expand upon. Here are some excerpts:

“The [source’s] call with me had taken place two days before Novak’s column appeared. I wrote my…story because I did not think the person who spoke to me was committing a criminal act, but only practicing damage control…Fitzgerald wanted to find out the identity of my source. I refused. My position was that until my source came forward publicly or to the prosecutor, I would not discuss the matter. It turned out that my source, whom I still cannot identify publicly, had in fact disclosed to the prosecutor that he was my course, and he talked to the prosecutor about our conversation. (In writing this story, I am using the masculine pronoun simply for convenience)…We [Pincus and his attorney] confirmed that [the source] had no problem with my testifying about our conversation.

“When my deposition finally took place in my lawyer’s office last September, Fitzgerald asked me about the substance of my conversation about Wilson’s wife, the gist of which I had reported in the newspaper. But he did not ask me to confirm my source’s identity, which was my condition for being deposed. My original understanding with my source still holds — to withhold his identity until he makes it public, if ever.”

I still want to know more, but compare Pincus’s clarifying account with the mush we’ve been getting from the press at the moment. Here’s a sample from last Thursday’s New York Times, written by a fine reporter, Douglas Jehl, who sought information from his own newspaper for a story about the case:

“In e-mail messages this week, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, and George Freeman, an assistant general counsel of the newspaper, declined to address [Jehl’s] written questions about whether Ms. Miller was assigned to report about Mr. Wilson’s trip, whether she tried to write a story about it, or whether she ever told editors or colleagues at the newspaper that she had obtained information about the role played by Ms. Wilson.”

Yes, I do understand why the Times people can’t talk now. The case isn’t over, and Miller’s in jail and could face stiffer charges. But I do hope the non-storytelling will end and the narrative will bloom when the prosecutor — who is testing the public’s patience — finishes his work.

Why do I consider this personal accounting by journalists so important? Because they and their journalism were pieces of the story and should not be left blank. Because reporters risk losing credibility as independent observers if they are seen as cooperators and information gatherers for government agencies. And perhaps, most crucial, because we have no rational explanation for calling regularly on government and corporate giants to release all possible information to the public if we ourselves decline to release the details about our roles and our processes when they are germane to the story.

Robert Novak should come out from behind his false curtain and tell us everything. Judith Miller must also tell her story in full. Tim Russert cuts a large figure in Washington. He should be a big man now and give us some details; why not agree to be interviewed by someone as probing as he?

Again, they don’t have to name their sources. Just be reporters. The public has a right to know; isn’t that our mantra? If not, are we the piano player in that bordello?

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