Rush to Judgment

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

THERE'S A RUSH to judgment in the Valerie Plame affair that's a bit surprising. One person already convicted by many of her peers is Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who went to jail for 85 days to protect a source and then agreed to testify. Ms. Miller is no poster child for the First Amendment. The circumstances of her case, as Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote in an e-mail to his staff, "lack the comfort of moral clarity." Questions remain as to why she went to jail rather than accept a waiver from her source that he did not object to her testifying about their conversations -- and why, if that principle was inviolable, she later accepted a waiver to get out of jail.

Nonetheless, it's astonishing to see many in the journalism establishment, and in the media trade press, turn on Ms. Miller not just for questions surrounding the waiver but also for refusing now to identify all of her sources, turn over all of her notes and otherwise lay bare her reporting. Normally these commentators are among the first to defend journalists who seek to protect a confidential source. Reporters often rely on unnamed sources to expose corruption and incompetence in government. Neither Ms. Miller nor the other reporters in this case (including two at The Post) faced an easy choice in deciding the circumstances under which they could testify, but their struggle with the dilemma, and her decision to go to jail, merit some sympathy and respect. That Ms. Miller is receiving so little stems in part from disapproval over her too-credulous reporting leading up to the Iraq war and in part, in some cases, from animus toward the Bush administration. But the next time a journalist faces off with a prosecutor, these same commentators may regret the certainty with which they condemned Ms. Miller.

This affair began with a trip to Niger undertaken by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, which he said disproved one of the Bush administration's contentions about Saddam Hussein and nuclear weapons. Columnist Robert D. Novak reported that Mr. Wilson had been chosen in part because Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA; Mr. Wilson then charged that administration officials had deliberately blown his wife's undercover status to punish him for his truth-telling.

If so, they should be punished. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald may have evidence that they did; there is a still a great deal that is not publicly known. But so far, in the accounts given by reporters about their conversations with administration officials, no such crime has been described. What has been depicted is an administration effort to refute the allegations of a critic (some of which did in fact prove to be untrue) and to undermine his credibility, including by suggesting that nepotism rather than qualifications led to his selection. If such conversations are deemed a crime, journalism and the public will be the losers.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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