Should the seducer complain about the chastity of the victim? Should the blackmailer demean the scruples of the prey?
Questions like that rebound on the press and television from the leaks that have laid bare the Abscam investigation. At the very least, there is a need on our part for a little more self-discipline, and a lot more self-awareness.
The harm done by the leaks affects everybody.
Decent officials have been wrongly associated in the public mind with criminial elements. The bringing of criminals to justice has been compromised by pretrial publicity. The Justice Department and the FBI have seen their luster as law-enforcement agencies dulled by what looks like an itch to hunt publicity.
The fault of government in all this looms large. The detailed character of the Abscam leaks leaves no doubt that some accounts, at least, were handed out wholesale, not merely pieced together by diligent reporters.
Failure to apply discipline to the information process is perhaps not the largest failure of the Carter administration. But no administration I can recall has been more prone to confuse public relations with government. The president and his chief advisers regularly dispense seemingly good news as a cover for non-achievements.
Lower-level officials are quick to follow suit. Damaging leaks against the interests of both the country and the president have from the beginning marked the Carter administration. The mishandling of the affair involving the Soviet brigade in Cuba occurred in large part because the administration feared a leak and didn't know how to maintain secrecy. So it is heartening that Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti takes the Abscam leaks seriously enough to order a special investigation that may detect and punish the wrongdoers inside the government.
But those on the journalistic side of the fence do not come off scot-free. It is not as though officials just come forward telling tales galore. On the contrary, leaks are generally fostered by well-known techniques.
The seduction technique is one. A reporter goes to a highly conscientious official and says he has information that the official is sitting on an investigation. He says he knows the official cannot possibly be quilty of the charge but needs some proof. The official spills the details -- often off the record. The reporter uses the information -- sometimes breaking the off-the-record rule, sometimes passing the material on to an office colleague -- to get the story out.
The blackmail technique is another. A reporter assails an official for being part of a cover-up. The official, on the defensive, tries to prove his innocence by volunteering the information -- also off the record in many cases. The disclosure, by the same process, becomes a news story.
In these conditions it is easy to understand why Civiletti thinks it is "bizarre" to find the same newspapers that blare out the leaks on the front page criticize them on the editorial page. No doubt Civiletti would prefer to have the criticial editorials rather than no criticism at all. Still, journalists have a collegial responsibility for illegitmate leaks that cannot merely be accepted by the conscience of the paper.
Recognition that pretrial publicity fits into a special category is one step forward. Advance information on pending trails threatens to compromise the innocent and protect the guilty. With one exception, the only benefit is that information is divulged that would otherwise have become public a little later anyway. The exception is the case of the fix -- as in Watergate. But that is extremely rare -- so rare that it would be appropirate for all journalists to forswear pretrial publicity as a general rule.
More important still is the need to be self-conscious about the news business. Leaks almost never involve a hidden principle that is not otherwise going to surface. They almost always connect up with sophisticated enterprise by powerful news agencies. That kind of enterprise may be important to the self-esteem of a person or an organization. But it should be used with discretion -- not loosely, and certainly not self-righteously in the spirit of the conceit that what's good for the media is good for America.