The Politics of Leaking

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006; 11:24 AM

We seem to have argued our way into a debate over good leaks and bad leaks.

Some conservatives are mighty upset over the leaks involved in two Pulitzer-winning stories, the NYT's domestic surveillance scoop and The WP's disclosure of the secret CIA prisons. So we're getting an earful about the suspect motives of leakers and how newspapers are damaging national security and maybe even that reporters who publish classified material should go to jail.

I don't recall these folks being exercised about the gusher of Ken Starr leaks during the Clinton investigations. Those didn't involve national security, but they did involve grand jury secrets, the disclosure of which is illegal. In those years, the Wall Street Journal editorial page was so appalled at President Bill Clinton that the question of who was dishing to reporters got short shrift.

Let's face it: There's a principle here, that journalists should have the right to ferret out information they deem to be in the public interest, even if it's against the law for sources to provide that information. But to be equally candid, people--even including journalists--applaud the leaks they like and denounce the leaks they detest. Thus, some news organizations demanded a special prosecutor after senior administration officials disclosed Valerie Plame's CIA employment to Robert Novak, and were appalled at what appeared to be a case of political retaliation against Joe Wilson.

That, said the WSJ in this editorial , which I quoted the other day, is a "preposterous double standard. . . . It would appear that the only relevant difference here is whose political ox is being gored, and whether a liberal or conservative journalist was the beneficiary of the leak. That the press sought to hound Robert Novak out of polite society for the Plame disclosure and then rewards [Dana] Priest and [James] Risen with Pulitzers proves the worst that any critic has ever said about media bias."

But doesn't everyone make distinctions between, say, Deep Throat leaking information about Watergate corruption vs. leaks about Clinton's sex life vs. leaks about the Iraq war authorized by George W. Bush himself? Even the information about why CIA officer Mary McCarthy was fired--supposedly for leaking classified information to The Post, which she has denied--was conveyed in the form of not-for-attribution leaks.

The latest to join the argument, in a big way, is Bill Keller . In a response to the WSJ slam, the New York Times executive editor writes:

"Your editorial posits a conspiracy between journalists and 'a cabal of partisan bureaucrats' to undermine President Bush by sabotaging the war on terror. Among the suspects swept up and summarily convicted in your argument are: a) government officials who have disclosed secret doings of the government (with the exception of President Bush, whose leak-authorizing somehow escapes your notice); b) reporters and editors at the New York Times and Washington Post for reporting on these secret doings--notably the detention of terror suspects in CIA facilities in Europe and eavesdropping on Americans without warrants; and c) the Pulitzer Board, which honored both of those journalistic exploits last week.

"I leave to others, including the court of public opinion, whether the government officials who spoke to reporters about secrets that troubled them were partisan evildoers, as the Journal contends, or conscientious public servants, or something more complicated. Since most of them, including the nearly a dozen who were cited in the first warrantless eavesdropping story, have not been publicly identified, it's hard to know how the Journal is so certain of their motives. . . .

"To believe that aggressive journalism is driven by liberal partisanship requires an awfully selective memory. (Ask Bill Clinton. Ask Congressman Mollohan.) The role of journalism on our side of the news/opinion divide, at least as we aspire to perform it, is not to be advocates for or against any president or any party or any cause. It is not to tell our readers what we think or what they should think, but to provide information and analysis that enables them to make up their own minds. We are sometimes too credulous, sometimes too cynical--in other words, we are human--but I think we get the balance right most of the time, and when we don't we feel an obligation to correct it.

"In addition to fair treatment in the news pages, presidents are entitled to a respectful and attentive hearing, particularly when they make claims based on the safety of the country. In the case of the eavesdropping story, President Bush and other figures in his administration were given abundant opportunities to explain why they felt our information should not be published. We considered the evidence presented to us, agonized over it, delayed publication because of it. In the end, their case did not stand up to the evidence our reporters amassed, and we judged that the responsible course was to publish what we knew and let readers assess it themselves. You are welcome to question that judgment, but you have presented no basis for challenging it, let alone for attributing it to bad faith or animus toward the president."

You know that GOP plan to hand out money to sticker-shocked motorists?


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