July 10, 2005

Journalism Weather Report: Cold Front Reaches Cleveland

Journalism, at its core, is an uncomplicated concept: Reporters find things out and tell them to other people. In that sense, then, there are two parts to the journalism: Knowing and Communicating. Engaging in one without the other breaks the equation.

If you know something, but don't communicate it, then you are not committing journalism. The corollary, communicating without knowing, is unfortunately far more common these days. But neither is it journalism. It is simply opining.

The most troubling aspect of the jailing of Judith Miller is that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald locked her up for simply knowing something (which may or may not be true.)

I don't believe in absolute privilege for journalists - and have said so in the past. Anonymous sources continue to be the bane of journalistic credibility. We need look no further than the Newsweek/Koran fiasco to verify that. I can envision times when a reporter should cooperate with government inquiry - when lives are threatened or national security is at stake, for example. The Miller case, though, is not one of those times. The stakes here are purely political and professional. Moreover, Fitzgerald presumably has found out who in the Bush administration leaked Valerie Plame's secret to Robert Novak - either from Matt Cooper of Time or Novak himself. Jailing Miller, then, is purely punitive. [Read: According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability and Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet.]

I know many disagree with me and this is good. Debate about journalism is healthy, particularly about ethical matters, which are always messy and never neatly compartmentalized, but can be summarized in two words: Be honest. (Thanks Jeff Jarvis.)

What worries me most, though, is the proverbial chilling effect on free and unfettered expression. It is real and it will affect the quality of journalism in your city and your country.

The cold front emanating from the administration and courts in Washington reached Cleveland this week. Doug Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tells his readers in a column that the paper will not publish two investigative stories based on leaked information for fear of prosecution. He writes:

"As I write this, two stories of profound importance languish in our hands. The public would be well served to know them, but both are based on documents leaked to us by people who would face deep trouble for having leaked them. Publishing the stories would almost certainly lead to a leak investigation and the ultimate choice: talk or go to jail. Because talking isn't an option and jail is too high a price to pay, these two stories will go untold for now." (Emphasis added.)

Clifton also told Editor and Publisher that the decision to freeze the stories indefinitely was based on advice of the newspaper's lawyers. He says:

"They've said, this is a super, super high-risk endeavor, and you would, you know, you'd lose. The reporters say, 'Well, we're willing to go to jail, and I'm willing to go to jail if it gets laid on me,'" but the newspaper isn't willing to go to jail. That's what the lawyers have told us. So this is a Time Inc. sort of situation."

The negatives of this decision are manifest. The Cleveland community is deprived of important information; and a newspaper is deprived of practicing some of the core elements of journalism, namely its obligation to the truth and its loyalty to the citizenry. It knows, but it is not communicating. The journalistic equation is incomplete.

The financial, readership and cultural troubles of newspapers are deep and tangled enough without adding an incentive to do less investigative or watchdog reporting, the primary type of work that separates quality journalism from the mass of media noise.

A lot has been said about the Miller case. Here is a sampling (all emphasis added):

 Frank Rich on Time magazine's decision. It addresses corporate vs. journalistic mentality:

"At Time, Norman Pearlstine - a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, no less - described his decision to turn over Matt Cooper's files to the feds as his own, made on the merits and without consulting any higher-ups at Time Warner. That's no doubt the truth, but a corporate mentality needn't be imposed by direct fiat; it's a virus that metastasizes in the bureaucratic bloodstream. I doubt anyone at Time Warner ever orders an editor to promote a schlocky Warner Brothers movie either. (Entertainment Weekly did two covers in one month on "The Matrix Reloaded.") 'Is this a journalistic company or an entertainment company?' David Halberstam asked after the Pearlstine decision."

 Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News argues that Miller brought it on herself:

"Indeed, cases like these have come and gone since 1735 and Peter Zenger. And so some time in the near future, another American reporter will be threatened with jail -- this time because he won't reveal a source who exposed corruption, not a source who caused it. Maybe Judy Miller will be a free woman by then. Maybe she won't. Either way, it's her own fault -- and the result of the choices that she has made over the years.

 Alan Mutter of Newsosaur looks at Time's motivation:

"How could two leading news organizations facing an almost identical set of facts come to such different decisions? Reasonable men and women, of course, may differ. But perhaps Time feels more economically vulnerable than the NYT."

 Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily gets lunar:

"This is a bad moon rising. And one that should send a chill down the spine of anyone who cares about an inquiring press and an informed citizenry."

 Howard Crook, a retired journalist, lingers too long staring in journalism's rear view mirror, but raises an important question:

"How are we to survive as a free society if we have to rely on only the unchallenged bulletins from government? Some out there may think we're ruled by angels, but I've covered enough politicians and government types as a reporter to know better."

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Posted by Tim Porter at July 10, 2005 01:38 PM

In the Cleveland case you mention, I don't see how the Plain Dealer can be at risk of either having to reveal sources or "going to jail" unless the documents in question are legally secret (e.g., defense classified or grand-jury protected, etc.). While I'm sure Clifton is sincere about his audience "needing to know", I don't see how we can just let him make unilateral decisions to declassify sensitive information which is legally protected. If too much information is legally protected, then that's a separate problem which needs to be addressed legislatively.

Perhaps the best option would be to establish an "affirmative defense" in such cases if the the documents in question were improperly classified in the first place.

Posted by: Hunter McDaniel on July 11, 2005 08:26 AM
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