This has been a terrible week, one of those periods when the news itself overwhelms the routine efforts of readers and critics to call attention to real or perceived flaws in the way the news is reported and presented.
It had been a relatively quiet week for the ombudsman's inbox. A couple of readers objected, fairly, I thought, to a reportorial assessment in a news story on July 3 about both political parties lining up their strategies for the coming battle over Supreme Court nominees.
The story reported that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) appealed for hearings marked by "dignity and respect." Then reporter Mike Allen wrote: "That does not appear likely," and reported that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that an effort to choke off inquiries about specific issues would fail because Democrats believe they have "an obligation to our country and the Constitution to thoroughly vet the nominee." As one reader put it: "Since when does a senator's questioning of a witness become a sign of a lack of dignity or respect?"
Some others sought to nail the Post on the sourcing for a front-page story July 4 by reporters Charles Babington and Susan Schmidt that began, "Democrats' hopes of blocking a staunchly conservative Supreme Court nominee on ideological grounds could be seriously undermined by the six-week-old bipartisan deal on judicial nominees, key senators said yesterday."
Critics pointed out that only one of the 14 senators who are part of the bipartisan group, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), is quoted clearly supporting this point of view. The story also reports that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a leader of the seven Democratic signers, largely concurred. To back that up, it cites a statement from Nelson's spokesman that is actually rather vague. It says Nelson "would agree that ideology is not an 'extraordinary circumstance' unless you get to the extremes of either side." I checked with Nelson's spokesman, David DiMartino; he said that the statement was "vague" and gives some "wiggle room," but that neither he nor Nelson has any problem with the way the story was reported.
By late in the week, however, such issues were dwarfed by the reality of our new world. As I write this on Thursday, the horror of another barbaric and cowardly terrorist attack is unfolding in London, a reminder not only of the durability of this new war but also of the patience of its perpetrators and the difficulty of defending against them.
A day earlier, another part of the new world unfolded with the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for her refusal to testify before a federal grand jury and identify a source to whom she had pledged confidentiality. The jailing of a reporter doesn't stop the world, but it should give pause to all of us concerned about the need for a truly free press in this country.
The case goes back two years, to when columnist Robert D. Novak revealed the name of Valerie Plame, then an undercover CIA agent, and reported that "two senior administration officials" told him about her role in sending her husband on a mission to Africa to investigate possible Iraqi purchases of nuclear material.
If someone were to write a Broadway play about a maddening case pitting two fundamental, at times conflicting, American institutions -- the grand jury system and a free press -- it would be hard to make it more compelling than this real-life drama.
One element, in my view, is missing from this story. That would be reasonableness, both on the part of an extremely aggressive special prosecutor and the defending news organizations. That may be naive, but it just seems to me that somewhere along the line, some way could have been found to compromise and resolve this short of what we saw last week.
However principled and courageous Miller's stand, this was a bad case to begin with and is almost certain to make even worse the body of law and precedent confronting reporters trying to uncover wrongdoing. Despite "shield laws" in 49 states, there is no First Amendment protection for reporters asked to testify before a federal criminal grand jury. Every court that heard this case ruled against the reporters involved or declined to hear it, as the Supreme Court did.
The plot would be hard to make up. At the time of the leak, the Times led the editorial page charge for a special prosecutor to investigate. The prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has now helped jail a Times reporter who never wrote a story about the situation. She is protecting not a whistle-blower trying to expose government wrongdoing, but someone within the Bush administration who may be a scoundrel for revealing a name of an undercover CIA agent to reporters in order to undermine the credibility of her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had undertaken a mission to Africa for President Bush and later spoke out publicly, accusing the administration of having "twisted" intelligence to "exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
Because of the secrecy of the grand jury process, and Fitzgerald's silence, we don't even know if a crime has been committed or what evidence of wrongdoing he has. Columnist Novak floats above the fray, silent and untouched in any visible way. Plame, the undercover agent, later posed for a photo with her husband for Vanity Fair magazine. Miller, a year ago the subject of widespread criticism for some of her reporting on the threat of weapons of mass destruction posed by Saddam Hussein, is now the upholder of one of journalism's most crucial commandments -- the vow to protect sources when the chips are down.
Like any good Broadway drama, however, this one could have a surprise ending. That should come when Fitzgerald tells us what he's got, who he's got and what's really going on here.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.