Possibly there remain in this diverse and teeming republic of ours people who, steeped in the legends of Watergate, dutifully believe in the dainty scrupulosity of the noble journalist. Nowadays, many wonders exist in the land. For instance, there are college-educated adults, reputed to be of sound mind, who nonetheless are edified by the Mullah Brown, and there are others who click their heels when the Gringo Somoza, John B. Connally, strides by. Yet, truth be known, no one I know still believes in the image of the noble journalist.
The situation has only been compounded by complaints in the press against the Abscam leakers. What about the role of the journalists themselves? Editors who claim the right to publish such stories lest other editors beat them to it are on the same moral ground as a mugger who seeks exoneration by saying he was forced to rob the old lady lest his competition beat him to her purse.
Now, of course, to speak so rudely about the self-serving practices of the Fourth Estate is to hazard opprobrium from those archbishops of the profession who prowl the republic, ever vigilant for heretical utterances against their sacred customs and privileges. Also, the damage is done. Their shrieks of protest are already sounding. Let us proceed and seal my fate.
Leaks have become a vice. Those who rely on them are often corrupted by them. Too often, leaks turn a reporter into a mere public-relations agent for causes neither he nor the public fully understands. In reading the Abscam stories, the casual reader does not really know if a crime has been committed or who committed it. The careful reader does not know if he is reading information that was meant to close down an investigation, preserve the integrity or force of an investigation, ensure the eventual acquittal of the alleged culprits, or what. Most likely the journalists who wrote the stories are not much clearer about the motivation of the leaker. Possibly they are not even clear on the identity of the leaker.
This is no advance in the journalist's craft; it is an advance for gossips and devious political operators. More often than one would think, the fabled investigative reporter is only a simple hack sitting around waiting for the telephone to ring. When it does, he becomes a dutiful stenographer for sources whose intentions he either does not understand or will not speculate upon publicly.
The code of the journalist is a novel one. For instance, the foreign correspondent follows practices, such as paying off informants, that would earn an executive the calaboose. Nonetheless, I shall make bold to suggest additions to the code. Why not make it de rigueur for the reporter writing a story based on leaks to include candid, intelligent speculations on the leaker's possible motives? Are you with me? Let us go a bit further. How about encouraging the reporter to identify to the best of his ability the identity of the leaker? Surely the archbishops of the craft could get together and urge such practices.
Finally, in the interest of policy and forthright public discourse, it seems to me about time for the courts and the legislators to define what can be leaked with impunity and what cannot. Not only would policy formation be improved, but the artless journalist might be preserved from the heartless manipulations of devious pols and bureaucrats.
Truth to tell, I really love my brothers in the corps and want their purity maintained at all cost.