Media Muddle

When the Society of Professional Journalists holds its national convention here in Washington this weekend, I’ll be part of a panel discussing the ethical questions surrounding the CIA leak case.

Putting aside the argument about what the hell a “professional journalist” is, or whether there are many ethical ones, we’re left with the many questions about covering the whole matter that are flummoxing all of us. (Maybe a good definition of “professional journalist” is someone who uses words like “flummoxing.”)

Among those thrashing around with this are members of Congress. (Another good J-word: “thrashing.”) They are in the process of trying to agree on a federal shield law that would pretend to offer reporters some protection from being forced to reveal their sources. Frankly, with all the exceptions, it ends up being a flimsy shield, if it even becomes law.

It’s not an easy issue. I fully embrace the concept that our nation needs the facts the government routinely tries to hide from us. That information is often only available from sources who fear repercussions and won’t talk without assurances they won’t be identified.

My fellow panelists are Robert Novak, the columnist who forced this whole issue when he quoted unnamed sources and blew Valerie Plame’s secret CIA cover. The other is Norman Pearlstine, the former editor in chief of Time magazine who turned over notes and internal communications demanded by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald after the Supreme Court refused to intercede.

Novak had testified before Fitzgerald’s grand jury and revealed his sources without a fight over reporter privilege.

I was covering this story from the outside, watching the parade of journalists who were coerced to testify and wondering what I would do if I could be jailed indefinitely.

Actually, this has happened to me a couple of times in my career but the judges always decided they could do without making me a martyr.

But here we are today. Attorneys and judges — who are attorneys, after all — are not usually friendly to reporters. Our two institutions are inherently at odds. Lawyers operate within a very orderly set of rules. We journalists, to put it charitably, can be disorderly. The idea that we are worthy of a special confidentiality privilege comparable to attorney-client doesn’t usually pass the jurisprudence smell test.

And then there’s that dirty little secret: Some reporters, in their zeal to “break” a story, have been known to lie about fictional “sources” or manufacture their quotes.

At the very least we sometimes disregard the fact that these sources have an agenda they can promote by feeding their self-serving information crumbs to the desperate journalists without having their motives publicly questioned.

There’s also the valid question about national security. I don’t mean the type that so many officials contrive, but the real life-or-death kind that can be jeopardized by leaks.

Frankly, Valerie Plame’s cover does not really qualify. Scooter Libby’s indictment for lying and the revelation that Karl Rove was involved (gee, what a SURPRISE!) along with Richard Armitage, were also not worth shredding the journalistic process.

We can expect it to get worse. No amount of hand-wringing at the SPJ convention will change that. We’ll be preaching to the converted. So there’s really one ethical question: Do we believe in keeping our sources enough to give up everything we have, including our liberty? Will we be willing to go it alone, without the backing of corporate bosses who worry only about the bottom line?

How sad that the First Amendment’s “freedom of the press” has come to that.