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Coziness Conundrum

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005; 8:51 AM

In all the back-and-forth over whether Judy Miller should have accepted Scooter Libby's waiver of confidentiality before going to jail and becoming a cause celeb, one passage really jumped out at me:

"Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work -- and life."

It's obvious that Libby--who was writing to assure Miller that he really did want to give her a waiver so she wouldn't rot in jail--likes her. (Presumably he liked her just as much before she went off to the Alexandria Detention Facility. Keep in mind that he'd already testified. so the prosecutor already knew he was a source for the NYT reporter.) Does that mean they were ideological comrades and that therefore Miller was in sync with the administration (as she had been with her WMD stories) and trying to protect the Bushies?

Not necessarily. Reporters strike up relationships with all kinds of sources, including people they disagree with or don't particularly like, for one simple reason: to get information. Sometimes they get friendly, and sometimes it's more of a business transaction. On this point I must disagree with my Post colleague David Ignatius , who writes:

"It's obvious that Libby cares about Miller and wants her to return to reporting on issues they both see as important. That sort of personal connection between reporter and source may strike some people as sinister, but it's the mother's milk of journalism. That's why people tell us things: Because we listen, and often sound sympathetic. Just ask Bob Woodward. . . .

"Almost by definition, those relationships become incestuous -- with journalists and their sources chasing the same facts and often seeking to right the same wrongs. It's the job of editors to intervene in this process -- and demand to know, on behalf of readers, whether a story is really true."

Yes, the editor's role is crucial, but the notion that reporter and source are usually on their stallions, tilting at the same windmills, is off base. Woodward, to use Ignatius's example, has managed to penetrate every administration since Nixon's, and he can't possibly believe the same things that Reagan, Bush and Clinton aides believe. His pitch (and that of numerous other journalists) is: I'm doing the story, I want to be fair, help me get it right (and besides, I've already talked to your critics).

Do some reporters get too close to their sources? Obviously. But it would be a mistake to believe that happens all or even most of the time.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll puts it bluntly:

"Everyone pretty much knows that the Judith Miller story doesn't add up, except for her employers at the New York Times, who continue to insist that Miller was a martyr to the cause of principled journalism.

"The Times has had practice in defending Judith Miller. Way back before the war in Iraq started, Miller wrote a series of pieces that promoted the reality of weapons of mass destruction in Iraqi hands, always quoting 'sources' but rarely quoting the many other 'sources' (like, say, Hans Blix) who said the opposite. Her main source turned out to be Ahmad Chalabi, the duplicitous Iraqi knave who told the Pentagon exactly what it wanted to hear, thus promoting the war in Iraq as a raid on Saddam's Secret Nukes. . . .

"How did Judith Miller get to be the martyr in all this? It was, after all, Valerie Plame who got caught in the cross fire between a vindictive White House and an angry diplomat. Someone might spare a thought for her. And if you want journalistic martyrs -- well, there are a whole bunch of them in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, risking their lives to tell the story of their wars. Those are the journalists I stand in awe of."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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