Jeff Jarvis, in BuzzMachine asks the provocative and slightly misleading question Would you go to jail for your weblog?. He’s talking about reporters like Judith Miller (New York Times) and Matt Cooper (Time), who’ve refused to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity by Bush Administration officials.
While I respect Jarvis’ strong views affirming a journalist’s right to protect his sources and have sympathy with Miller’s plight, I’m afraid this isn’t at all black and white to me as it appears to be to Jarvis. First, I’m a little shocked that he should take such a absolutist position when he himself admits: “I know there are many complicated facets to the Plame story (which I will also confess I have not followed in detail or covered at all).” Indeed, how can you make any judgement about such a complicated issue unless you DO understand all its facets? So this automatically lowers the credibility of his argument by a few notches.
New York Times’ Judith Miller: defender of free press
or protector of government malefactor? (credit: CNN.com)
Let’s look at the facts (at least as I see them). Judith Miller and other journalists were contacted by Lewis Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, regarding the Plame-Wilson affair. Though we don’t know what the substance of these conversations were, we can assume that Libby, Rove and their counterparts wanted to interest a mainstream national journalist in running a piece about Wilson and Plame, which possibly also involved ‘outing’ Plame as a CIA agent. After all, this is what Robert Novak ended up doing–so we can only assume that Libby and his friends were ‘shopping’ the story. To her credit, Miller never ran a story on this subject. But given how easily she and her bosses at the Times were gulled by the Bush Administration regarding the WMD story, I find it hard to believe that she would’ve even considered running the Plame story. Hadn’t she already learned her lesson about being conned by the Bushites?? So my sympathy for Miller is qualified by this knowledge of her past history.
Add to that, Libby has explicitly waived his right to confidentiality in this matter and specifically told all journalists that he spoke with that they may speak freely about their conversations with him. That includes Miller. This further erodes the viability of the Miller-Times absolutist position. The fact that they claim that Libby might’ve waived his rights under duress (since Libby’s boss, George Bush has urged all officials to cooperate fully with Pat Fitzgerald’s investigation) has little or no weight for me. Who are they to judge Libby’s state of mind? That’s not their job. When he tells them it’s OK to talk, what right do they have to second guess him?
If you add to this that Miller, Novak and the others were contemplating revealing the identity of a covert CIA operative…well, that’s a very serious issue. I think Miller made a terrible misjudgment by talking to Libby about this matter. If I were a journalist blogger (as Jarvis calls us), I would’ve been severely skeptical of Libby if he had come to me (no likelihood of that ever happening though). Why the hell would I even entertain the idea of blowing Valerie Plame’s cover??
Jarvis also admits that his post came about as a result of a conversation with Martin Nisenholtz, president of nytimes.com (“This post comes as a result of a conversation I had with a friend and professional colleague at The Times, Martin Nisenholtz, who believes that bloggers should be concerned about this case and should be discussing it. I took that conversation as a challenge.”). Nisenholtz is concerned that the blog world has supposedly been largely silent about Miller’s case and he asked Jarvis to begin a conversation about it. Well, the fact that the New York Times makes so few concessions to the needs of bloggers in their website policy makes me less eager to accede to his concerns. It also makes Jarvis’ favorable comments appear as if they were influenced or colored by Nissenholz’ eagerness to drum up blogworld support for the Times’ position in the case.
I’m usually a pretty strong defender of the Bill of Rights. So I find myself in the slightly uncomforable position of saying someone doesn’t deserve its full protection because of their acts. But that’s where I find myself regarding this one.
Michael Kinsley critiques “anonymous-source absolutists” in The Cult of the Source (Los Angeles Times). I find his perspective refreshing considering that he himself is a professional journalist. Ruminate This also speaks passionately and persuasively along simiilar lines in The Plame Game.