Free-Floating Hostility

Saturday, July 09, 2005

On Judy Miller and Journalist Shields

Let's take a trip to Benefit-of-the-Doubt Land, where during her embedding in Iraq, NY Times reporter Judith Miller was just trying to report the best story possible when let her sources in the Pentagon read her copy before she filed it. And she certainly didn't get, what was at first, the glamour embed post by peddling the Bush administration's WMD line during the run-up to the war. And she absolutely wasn't kept on the story because Howell Raines wanted to prove that he wasn't reflexively anti-Bush. And she absolutely didn't cultivate Iranian spy Ahmed Chalabi because he could invent enough sources to provide a scoop even if there were no real facts to support it. So you could believe all that if you wanted to, but you'd be naive.

It's enough to make one think that the Bob Novak's source on the Valerie Plame story called Miller, and eventually got her involved in this mess to try and restore her journalistic reputation. What all of 2002 and early 2003 proved, is that it's useful to have someone ambitious and uncritical at the most important newspaper in the country. The photos of herself being led into court can make people forget that she violated all the rules of journalist during her war reporting. She got too close to sources, she peddled their line, and she rushed inaccurate stories into print. It also irks me that one of her sources is Karl Rove, who probably thinks this whole thing is pretty damn funny.

Many in the last couple of weeks have suggested creating a federal journalist shield law, which would prevent courts from using jail to compel reporters to give up their sources. While I don't relish the idea of anyone going to jail, a special protection for journalists is a bad idea. For the government to create a right for reporters, it must first define what exactly journalism is and who constitutes a reporter. This ground is stickier than President Bush's copy of Guns and Ammo. Free speech and a free press are important checks on government power. Part of the reason they've been so effective over the centuries is that anyone can do it. Anyone can request information from public records offices. Anyone can call a public official and ask him or her questions about what they're doing . It's a democratic pursuit that affirms that government is accountable to everyone. Are bloggers journalists? Some -- like seriously only 2 or 3 but still -- actually fact check and use the mulitple source rules before posting things. Journalists may receive special access, but that's a different question.

A reporter's willingness to go to jail should reinforce the idea that politics and journalism are not just sports and drama for the unathletic and boring. Even if Washington is just a sophisticated sewing circle where people peddle gossip and carry out grudges, there are real-world consequences. The person or people that leaked the name of a covert CIA agent are those who believe that politics is merely the exercise of power to settle scores. In reality, the leak put American homeland safety at risk by likely cutting off potential sources of intelligence and American troops at risk because it impeached the honest reports that Saddam Hussein hadn't actually tried to obtain uranium.

I suspect those aren't Miller's motives for going to jail. But it's an important point anyway.

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