Friday, November 11, 2005

Sulzberger on Charlie Rose

Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times and chairman of the New York Times Company, spent an entire hour with tv journalist Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast today on PBS, discussing mostly the Judith Miller/Valerie Plame situation.

Just in case you've been on a desert island without CNN for the last year, Judith Miller was a reporter for the NYTimes (she just announced her retirement) who wrote a number of articles regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, and spoke to a confidential source (later revealed to be Vice President Cheney's chief of staff "Scooter" Libby) about the fact that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who published a scathing denunciation of the Bush administration's claim that the Saddam Hussein régime in Iraq tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger, was married to a covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame Wilson. (Joe and Valerie are still married, and Valerie still works for the CIA, but Robert Novak traitorously blew her cover.) Judy spoke to Scooter about Valerie. Although Judy never wrote about Valerie, she was subpoenaed by the grand jury investigating the leaking of a covert CIA operative's identity. Judy went to jail for 85 days to protect her source before Scooter gave her a release from her pledge of confidentiality, allowing her to testify.

Journalists are justifiably concerned about their ability to shield confidential informants who blow the whistle on major corporate or government wrongdoing. Without confidential sources, we might never have learned the truth about scandals all the way from Watergate down to a local company cutting corners on its environmental standards.

However, the "textbook" scenario for shielding confidential sources is rather different from the facts of the Judy Miller case. In the abstract, we contemplate a situation where the upper echelons of an organization have committed some great misdeed against the public interest. Some lower functionary reveals this to the press, but can't do so by name for fear of retaliation. The story gets out, the source has some protection under whistleblower statutes, and the public interest is served.

In the Judy Miller case, though, the upper echelons were both the confidential source and the perpetrators of the great misdeed. In fact, the provision of the information was itself a misdeed against the public interest. The public interest in allowing Valerie Plame — and her contacts — to continue to operate out of public view, vastly outweighed any public interest in knowing her identity, or even knowing that she might have been involved in choosing her husband for the fact-finding mission in Niger. By protecting her confidential source, Judy Miller was not shielding a whistleblower, she was making herself in effect an accessory to the crime.

(The Wen Ho Lee case also promises to direct substantial scrutiny on the issue of confidential news sources. Dr. Lee was a scientist at the Los Alamos National Labs until he was falsely accused of providing classified nuclear information to China. He was imprisoned for nine months. Dr. Lee is now seeking to compel the journalists who claimed that he had in fact engaged in espionage, to reveal their confidential sources. Here again, the confidential sources were not protecting the public interest by revealing malfeasance at the top; instead, they were hiding behind a veil of anonymity to smear an innocent man.)

It is inarguable that the principle of shielding confidential sources is under attack, but it does not help the cause when the principle is invoked in situations where it does not apply. The public interest is not served by protecting those who seek to exact revenge from on high.