Tell it to the judge
I’ve never talked with Scooter Libby. I haven’t
seen Karl Rove since he visited USC a couple of years ago. I’ve
known Dick Cheney a long time, but we’ve not discussed
Valerie Plame, yellowcake or Saddam Hussein. Those are my disclaimers.
Have I used anonymous sources? Sure. In Washington, it’s
hard to avoid the background briefing—attributed to a “senior
White House official”—or the calculated leak. Occasionally,
you’ll hear from a whistleblower wary, even terrified,
of exposing his identity. If the information disclosed fits the
story, is credible and verifiable, you will probably use it.
Still, you always prefer on the record information to which you
can attach a name.
The issue that is causing so much journalistic turmoil is not
so much the use of anonymous sources, but the journalist’s
responsibility to protect those sources. It’s also about
the preservation of journalistic integrity.
Here’s what we need to tell our journalism students and
remind our grads.
The First Amendment to the Constitution is not a grant of immunity.
It says Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom…of
the press.” But it’s not an impenetrable shield.
The New York Times’ Judith Miller was jailed for contempt
of court, a law intended to keep all of us respectful. Whether
Miller needed to go to jail or should have is fuel for lengthier
discussion than this.
Anonymous sources should be the rarest kind, a condition rarely
asked and even more rarely granted. Absent personal or national
security concerns, there’s seldom compelling reason for
Manipulation has become the norm of politics. Whether it was
Scooter, Karl, the Veep or yet another White House whisperer,
the Plame game was cloaked—and not very clandestinely—in
political motives. The journalist, eager for the nugget no one
else has, must still question the reason for the leak. Skepticism
is one of a journalist’s healthiest attributes.
Moreover, when a journalist goes to court and becomes part of
the story, the story changes. Journalists are trained to be observers,
occasionally participant observers—I’m thinking of
the embedded reporters in Iraq. We’re headline writers,
not headline makers. At least, that’s the way I learned
Journalists have a place in court and, from my experience, should
have a bigger place. The third and often decisive branch of government
is too seldom covered. Is it because too few journalists are
trained in the law? Is it too complicated for the tight news
hole in many papers and most tv newscasts? Are the media unwelcome?
Importantly, it is not necessarily the latter. At a gathering
of federal judges and journalists at the First Amendment Center
at Vanderbilt in mid-November, judges expressed a willingness
to work with the media.
“I wish more media would call me more often,” said
Judge Andre Davis of the District of Maryland. “We, as
judges, are teachers.” Other judges indicated they are
not unwilling to talk with reporters, even explain cases. But
they are more inclined to do that when they have established
a working relationship with the reporter.
Judge Gerald Tjoflat of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh
Circuit in Florida noted that he tailors some court opinions
with the media in mind, especially in cases with high public
profiles. Judge Tjoflat feels that if he writes for the media,
reporters should not have to ask, “What does this mean?”
“The coverage we get is pretty darn good,” said
Judge Brock Hornby of the District of Maine. “If we have
a complaint, it’s the coverage we don’t get.”
That argues strongly for editors and news directors assigning
experienced reporters to cover courts and giving reporters the
latitude to spend what time is needed to get to know the issues,
the cases and the judges.
Arriving at that kind of a symbiotic working relationship with
the courts might even keep a journalist out of jail.