Journalism in the Twilight Zone

All journalists savor the image of bravely walking into the slammer to protect a source. It’s a heroic vision bearing little resemblance to the smarmy affair that became known as Plamegate.

The latest famous case involving journalists protecting confidential sources involved no principled reporter shielding a noble whistleblower who stood to lose all if exposed. Instead, it was the spawn of a vengeful quest by Bush’s palace guard to get even with former Ambassador Joe Wilson by orchestrating a leak-and-smear campaign to out his wife, CIA covert agent Valerie Plame. Wilson’s offense? Exposing one of the major lies that Bush used to start a war: that Iraq was seeking uranium “yellowcake” in Niger.

Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of Time Inc. at the time and a contentious player in the case, has written his version of events in Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War over Anonymous Sources. Using much that has been previously printed, Pearlstine rehashes the case, lacing the tale with a history of 20th century legal decisions that endangered First Amendment rights. The fun comes when Pearlstine-roasted for giving in to prosecutors-plays get-even. He slams New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., First Amendment lawyer Lloyd Abrams, jailbird reporter Judy Miller, and other players in the Plame affair.

Pearlstine raises the issue that has made lapdog journalists the target of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, bloggers, and independent publications. The case, he writes, revealed the time-honored “incestuous relations between reporters and sources and the too casual way journalists can imperil their own freedom” in the “neurotically competitive” nation’s capital.

Off the Record Cover

Decades ago, the 20th century’s most independent journalist issued similar warnings. “You cannot get intimate with officials and maintain your independence. … Whether they are good guys or bad guys they will use you,” I.F. Stone wrote. He continued: “Establishment reporters undoubtedly know a lot of things I don’t. But a lot of what they know isn’t true.”

Plamegate is rich with symptoms of the journalistic malignancy Stone diagnosed. Most obvious among them is Times reporter Miller, whose blind acceptance of lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction from sources such as Cheney handmaiden I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is unforgettable. Miller’s ill-founded front-page stories “were deeply flawed, highly partisan and often wrong,” Pearlstine writes, joining a chorus of harsh critics. So when Miller, counseled by Abrams, played Joan of Arc in an orange jumpsuit rather than reveal Libby as a source, even some media First Amendment absolutists winced. Libby and Karl Rove peddled the Plame leak everywhere. Pearlstine argues that half a dozen media heavyweights who obtained waivers of confidentiality from Rove and Libby before cooperating with prosecutors did not compromise journalistic principles. After 85 nights in jail, Miller also accepted a written waiver, which she had received from Libby months before she went to prison. Pearlstine portrays Abrams as not “pragmatic” enough and Miller as unnecessarily grandstanding, hiding behind the First Amendment.

“Miller looked bad,” writes Pearlstine, and her civil disobedience jail gig “suggested she was willing to obstruct justice to protect a source [Libby] who didn’t require protection.”

Since Watergate, the media have labeled every scandal a “gate.” Plamegate exposed the “sleazy and shameless” behavior of a vengeful administration, notes Pearlstine. It brought down one White House insider and semi-skewered Cheney and the now-departed Rove. Unlike Watergate, it did not bring down a president. The case set precedents that further endanger the rights of journalists in a time when the president wages all-out war against investigative reporters.

Yet a complex conundrum remains unresolved. How much fidelity does a reporter owe a source who deliberately lies? Or leaks nefarious vendettas? Or might be a party to a criminal act?

The use of confidential sources is at times essential, as it was for the Washington Post‘s Dana Priest, who broke the story of CIA secret foreign torture prisons. And for the New York Times scoop on National Security Agency warrantless spying written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. It is heartening that all three won Pulitzer Prizes, even as Bush, Cheney, and Alberto Gonzales went after them like baying hounds, cheered on by Wall Street Journal editorials. The dearly departed Gonzales wanted to revive the World War I Espionage Act to criminally prosecute these journalists.

The best in the business develop sources in the “bowels of the government, where the really good sources are,” as Stone once noted. “They are good public servants, very often breaking their hearts with frustration.”

But too many reporters grant “confidentiality” as easily as meter maids dispense parking tickets. When journalists are seduced by transparent, first-name flattery, or when their publishers demand access, disgraceful coziness with top officials is not far behind-although it is a mystery why any reporters think they are going to get anything but self-serving spin. Tim Russert tellingly testified, as Pearlstine paraphrases, “that he assumed all phone calls from high government officials are confidential or on deep background. In doing so, he acknowledged one of the biggest problems with Washington journalism-a symbiosis between reporters and sources in which the reporters often think it is their first job to protect their sources and that informing the public comes second.”

In the Plame affair a sacrosanct principle-one worth defending whenever necessary-was clouded by a bad case.

For his part, Pearlstine initially fought giving up confidential sources, then took heat from reporters for deciding to cooperate with prosecutors. Although decrying Pearlstine’s boardroom proclivities, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that his pragmatism was “probably appropriate in the Plame case, and perhaps it should have been pursued at an earlier juncture.”

Columnist Bob Novak, chief carrier of dirty water for Rove and company, started it all with the column that outed Plame in 2003. Journalists don’t go to jail for bad reporting, but if they did, there would be a cell waiting for Novak. He printed-without any verification-the lie that Plame had “suggested” to the CIA that her husband go to Nigeria to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking uranium. The reason, as Pearlstine writes, was to imply that “Wilson’s trip (and his challenge to the president) was not an act of government service but a politically motivated bit of nepotism.”

Novak’s column blew Plame’s cover and career, and Walter Pincus and Mike Allen reported in the Washington Post that Novak’s disclosure of her name also exposed a CIA front company.

Some congressional Democrats cried for a criminal investigation into possible violations of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald-appointed to find out who leaked what to whom and when-subpoenaed Miller (who had not written a story) and Matt Cooper of Time Inc. (who had written an Internet piece about the revenge-driven leak).

Novak himself talked to Fitzgerald with no apparent conscience about source protection (he got the story from Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, and Rove.) Novak still braggingly defends his “scoop.”

In the end, Fitzgerald did not find enough evidence to charge any leaker with a criminal violation of intelligence laws. Libby got 30 months jail time for perjury and obstruction of justice that Bush swiftly commuted. And no wonder. “There is a cloud over the vice president,” Fitzgerald noted, portraying Libby as the fall guy who protected Cheney by obstructing justice. Rove narrowly escaped perjury charges when-get this-Time Inc. reporter Viveca Novak, (no relation to Bob) tipped off her source-pal, Rove’s lawyer Robert Luskin, that Cooper had named him, giving Rove a last-minute chance to change his testimony.

As this whopper played out in the courts and media, journalists battled one another. Pearlstine was excoriated by major journalists such as Frank Rich and the late David Halberstam. Accused of craven corporate caving when he gave up Cooper’s notes, Pearlstine’s defense boils down to this: As a megamedia corporate chief, Pearlstine-who has a law degree-unhappily contemplated a contempt citation, a move guaranteed to produce dyspepsia in CEOs and stockholders. He argues that journalists are not above the law. When you lose in the courts, you have to obey. Time Inc. spent millions battling for Cooper in the courts, “and we lost every round. When the Supreme Court refused to hear our pleas, I folded our hand and turned over our notes to the grand jury.” It was “dispiriting” that the Supreme Court refused to take “our case, as is the resultant mess the press and prosecutors are left with.”

Pearlstine has taken it from both sides, also drawing criticism for pursuing the case through the courts and losing. “By pushing a test case through the federal court system in which the underlying facts offered little chance for success, Time Inc. and the Times company generated legal precedents that have damaged the institution of journalism,” CJR wrote.

Pearlstine is rough on Cooper’s use of confidentiality and discusses the confusion regarding source anonymity. “Ask a group of reporters or editors to tell you the difference between ‘confidential’ and ‘anonymous’ or between ‘not for attribution,’ ‘background,’ ‘deep background’ and ‘off the record’ and you will get a lot of different answers. As screenwriter William Goldman once said of Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.'” Cooper-characterized by his former boss as “the very model of the ‘Washington insider'”-cited a unique category in an e-mail to editors. Sounding like he was ordering a Big Mac, Cooper stated that he spoke to Rove on “double super secret background.” Pearlstine knocks Cooper for deciding “unilaterally” that Rove “deserved confidential source status.” Instead, Pearlstine regarded Rove as an “anonymous” source, meaning in his estimation Rove’s name would not be in print, but could be disclosed if a reporter were subpoenaed.

In the aftermath of the case, Pearlstine, like many in the media, champions a federal shield law to protect journalists from an intrusive government, but admits that versions being considered in Congress are watered down and offer little protection for the new face of journalism, bloggers.

There was a time when Pearlstine, as a principled Wall Street Journal editor, was a mentor to great reporters. But he always had an affinity for the boardroom. “I became comfortable socializing with my sources, including many CEOs,” he writes. In early years, he babysat Ross Perot’s children while doing a profile on him. He established a 35-year friendship with Lee Iacocca. While writing from Hong Kong, “some of my best friends were at Coudert Brothers [an international law firm], representing corporations that were trying to crack the China market.” (To be fair, he championed aggressive coverage of Wall Street and went against a Dow Jones advertising executive who protested Pearlstine’s willingness “to wash our dirty laundry in public.”)

In the Plame affair, the corporate lawyer in him won out over the journalist. Today he is a comfortable company man as a member of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm specializing in the acquisition of corporations. In this role, Pearlstine recently championed Rupert Murdoch’s further gobble-ization of the media. Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal begins an “exciting chapter” for Dow Jones & Co. and the field of business news, Pearlstine told a group of business press editors. Inside Chatter blogger Donna Bogatin reported Pearlstine’s enthusiastic speculation that “by leveraging the excess printing capacity of the Journal,” Murdoch might launch a national edition of the trash-and-slash New York Post.

Ethical journalism, anyone?

Journalist and author Myra MacPherson’s most recent book is All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone (Scribner).

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Published at 12:00 am CST