February 06, 2004

Journalism and Political Purpose

While reading Geneva Overholser's argument in the New York Times today that columnist Robert Novak should give up his source on the Valerie Plame outing, I began asking myself:

If journalism has a political purpose, is it still journalism? And, if it is not, then where is the line drawn and who shall draw it?

Overholser argues that principles - in this case a journalist's right to keep secret an investigative source - "require defending even when they arise in an unappealing guise," which is why, for example, journalists should applaud Larry Flynt's efforts on behalf of the First Amendment even though they might find his character repulsive. [ Read: Intel Dump's analysis of Flynt's battlefield access for the press case ]

But, says Overholser, Novak isn't deserving of the application of this principle and fellow journalists should not pick up their pens on his behalf because "he apparently turned a time-honored use of confidentiality - protecting a whistleblower from government retribution - on its head, delivering government retribution to the whistleblower instead. Worse, he enabled his sources to illegally divulge intelligence information."

I rarely differ with Overholser [ Read: Naming Names ], but although I agree that Novak is the worst kind of journalist - one willing to compromise ethics for personal notoriety - I can't agree with either point of her argument.

First, divulgence of most "intelligence information" is illegal so the act of making public what the government deems to be secret should not disqualify Novak from journalistic protections.

Would Overholser make the same argument against Neil Sheehan, who won a Pulitzer in 1972 for reporting based on secret documents stolen by a former government employee? The documents were the Pentagon Papers; the former bureaucrat was Daniel Ellsberg.

Overholser's second point - that Novak acted as a government pawn - is more complicated and returns to the question I asked at the beginning: How much political purpose can be injected into journalism before it is no longer journalism?

(Note the difference between political purpose - the intent to influence policymakers or public perception - and politics - the desire to harass or enervate the opposition.)

There is no definitive answer to that question, but I do know that Novak's protections as a journalist should not be undercut by his predilections to be more of a player than a reporter because some day those same arguments will be used against other journalists whose work also has political purpose, albeit more high minded than Novak's.

Journalists who write about poverty, racial inequity, harsh treatment of immigrants and other subjects that address the legion of social and economic injustices suffered by the American underclass, are grouped already under the rubric "liberal media" and forced by the conservative framing of the national agenda into defensive positions. (Another question: Why is reporting on poverty considered to be "liberal"?)

Would Overholser argue that those journalists - the types of reporters who win Alicia Patterson fellowships or Casey Journalism Center fellowships or Ted Scripps fellowships in environmental journalism - don't merit invocation of the protect-your-source principle? Isn't there work inherently infused with political purpose - the desire to change for the better the conditions of the poor or battered women or the planetary ecosystem?

I don't mean to include Novak among the ranks of those journalists who believe their mission is to give voice to the voiceless, but I am not comfortable deciding which journalists are ethical enough or serious enough or publicly minded enough based a political litmus test. I certainly don't want the current gang of First Amendment bandits occupying Washington to be in the position - either judicially or through policy - to further arbitrate who is a journalist and who is not, and which deserve protection and which do not.

The journalistic umbrella is large and, because of technology advances and the ensuing emergence of bloggers and other forms of participatory journalism, still unfolding.

The most principled journalists must share their protections with the less principled or, speaking of more ethical practitioners, the more purposeful.

Overholser is correct in this sense: Journalists who disagree with what Novak did should not support him, but there are ways of doing that without weakening the journalistic safeguards that are already under broad attack in this country.

Don't run his columns. Don't reprint his assertions if they are unsourced. Don't add to his notoriety.

Novak had the right to name Valerie Plame. No one had an obligation to pass it along.

 New York Times: Geneva Overholser The Journalist and the Whistle-Blower

Posted by Tim Porter at February 6, 2004 07:23 AM