Thursday, July 07, 2005

Violating my own rules...

OK, I know I've said I'll never talk about work, but this came up in the comments on a post at Stewie's blog, and I was asked for my thoughts on the matter.

So I found myself writing about a million lines, I decided to put them up over here, rather than clutter up Stewie's blog comments.

First of all, let me say (AGAIN!), these opinions are my own, no one else's, not my employer's, and do not necessarily reflect any of my employer's policies.

Second, the issue in question is the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. I don't know her, I don't work for the Times, and most of what I know I've read in the paper or seen on CNN like everybody else. Most of the facts I'm citing in my reply, I got from

Third, if you want any of this to make sense, the first thing you have to do is read Stewie's post on the matter. Go do that now, then come back.

OK, done reading? Read the comments, too? Go do that, too. It'll help with the context.

OK, NOW you're done? Good. Here's my reply:

First of all, my gut instinct is to decline to comment, citing conflict of interest.

Secondly, it should be noted that neither reporter in question is the one who actually revealed the name of the CIA operative first. That was Bob Novak. Why he wasn't charged, I don't know.

Third, the case isn't a question of who published the name - in fact, the Times reporter who went to jail never even wrote an article on the subject.

The issue at hand is whether or not these journalists needed to reveal their sources to the grand jury investigating who leaked the name of the CIA operative to the media. The person who the grand jury is after has nothing to do with the media, and the contempt of court charge is based on the premise that they are refusing to testify about what they know.

The belief, of course, would be that the source leaking the information would be prosecuted for revealing the name of the operative and thus allowing it to be printed.

So the ethical question for journalists is twofold: One aspect, the one your post is covering, is whether or not you print information that could put a life in jeopardy. The problem is, the post's base logic is flawed in that this is not the reason the woman from the Times is going to jail.

The second half of the ethical question is this: Weighing a promise to a source of anonymity vs. the requirements of the law to reveal that source. This gets to things like attorney-client privilege, priests and what they hear in confession, and so forth.

Traditionally, journalists are adamant about keeping their sources' secrecy because of whistleblowing cases such as the Watergate/Deep Throat example, and many others. These are not the first journalists to face this dilemma, nor is she the first to go to jail.

Also, it was reported the Time mag reporter's source freed him from his promise of anonymity, so that reporter did testify - but would not name the source to the media outside (grand jury testimony being closed). Therefore, it would seem, that source is jeopardizing his/her own safety (because if he/she is the leak, he/she could be charged) rather than see the journalist suffer for a non-binding promise.

Understand, too, most newspapers, and I cannot imagine the Times is any different, have a policy by which some high-ranking editor knows the identity of any anonymous source in the paper. The Times hierarchy has thus made a conscious decision to back its reporter's stance.

To me, personally, it's a question of honor and professional responsibility vs. civil responsibility.

Without the promise of anonymity, some sources would never come forward to reveal great wrongs - witness the laws passed offering financial rewards for whistleblowing as evidence that it's difficult to get people to risk their lives or livelihoods without incentive or protection, even if they are doing the right thing.

And a man's word is his bond. I promise you anonymity, you're getting anonymity.

On the other hand, I find the publishing of an undercover agent's name reprehensible. However, again, that's not necessarily the issue in play here. Miller, the reporter jailed, never printed the name of the agent, for whatever reason. But in some cases, the question becomes what you reveal vs. the greater good - witness the trouble Geraldo got in while an embed over in the Middle East for saying where his unit was traveling, on the air.

I've never been in a position of having to deal with anonymous sources. So it's difficult for me to say what I would do in that situation and be fair to those in whose shoes I've never walked.

But I would say this: Every journalist I know has, in his own mind, a line drawn that he'd rather quit his job than cross. So I think that says no journalist makes a decision like the ones involved here lightly.

The problem with debating the premise at hand, as I said, is that the premise is flawed. You can debate the ethics of printing an undercover agent's name. You can debate the ethics of revealing anonymous sources. You can debate whether or not journalists are above the law, and whether or not this prosecutor is violating a longstanding tradition and whether or not that invalidates his moral stance. But in this case, the revealing of the name is not a cause and effect relationship with the jailing, and that voids the entire base argument of the post.

That's probably about eight or 10 cents instead of two, but there you have it. My opinion, such as it is.


Stewie said...

My fault, I should have been clearer in my post. I'm aware she did not print it. I'm aware that Coop did. My comment on the printing was directed at Coop.

The bottom line is, though, she knows information she refuses to tell. She should be in jail.

This isn't whistleblowing on a company. This could possibly put someone's life in danger. Two seperate things. And if someone knows something but aren't telling--and it could effect lives--they should be punished for it.

But in this case, the revealing of the name is not a cause and effect relationship with the jailing, and that voids the entire base argument of the post.

I'm confused. The revealing of the name is a cause and effect relationship with the jailing, no? She refused to reveal the name (cause) and she went to jail (effect).

Unless you mean something else, which could possibly be the case.

Ace said...

My point with the statement you italicized was that she (Miller) did not reveal the name of the CIA operative in public. (Because she didn't publish an article.) So she is not being jailed for revealing the identity of the CIA agent - which is, presumably, what put the agent's life in danger.

My disagreement with your argument stems from the basic idea: If I am understanding you correctly, you think she should be in jail because she is jeopardizing the CIA agent's life.

My point, however, is this: What she is choosing not to reveal is not information that would jeopardize the agent's life. Because she never revealed the agent's identity. What she is choosing not to reveal is who told her the agent's identity.

If you ask me, that person is the one who should be in jail for jeopardizing the agent's life.

Now, if you think she should be jailed for not revealing her source because that person is endangering lives, that's a whole 'nother matter.

But that's not what you said.

Think of it this way: Martha Stewart went to jail for insider trading. Also headed to jail was her friend Sam Waksal, the man who gave her the insider information that allowed her to make the illegal trades. (All of this is under appeal, so add an "allegedly" here somewhere.)

But if Stewart had not acted on Waksal's information, she would have committed no crime.

Waksal, after all, was the one in the wrong by providing the information in the first place (that is to say, giving Stewart information not available to the general public, enabling her to sell her shares ahead of suffering a huge loss that "average" shareholders suffered).

So in the Miller case, this unnamed source is the one in the wrong as far as jeopardizing the agent's life, not the reporter, because the unnamed source is the one revealing the name.

The Times reporter, in fact, never did a thing to jeopardize the agent's life, because she printed no article - and if she had, she would have been the third person to do so, after Novak and Cooper. So the agent's life had already been jeopardized.

Another example might be the first Dennis Kozlowski trial, when some people thought one of the jurors was sending signals to the defense (a violation of the rules). A news organization (not mine) revealed the name of the juror, despite general tradition that you not do so. Subsequently, several other news organizations (including mine, IIRC) also printed the name, since it was being widely disseminated.

And later, some person made threats to said juror, resulting in a mistrial. And in fact, the juror said later, she was sending no signals.

Was this a mistake, by the original news organization? I say yes. (Insert standard disclaimer here.) Was it a mistake by the subsequent ones? That was the general subject of some debate at mine, at least, with the majority tending toward yes.

What would be the thinking here? Because it was an action with direct consequences on the situation. By revealing the woman's name, it made her the subject of (idle) threats and disrupted the trial.

How does that differ from the Miller situation? Again, it is a case where nothing Miller published had a direct effect on the agent.

Now, if I'm misreading your argument, say so. And feel free to continue the discussion.

Stewie said...


Ace said...


Okay you agree?

Okay I'm full of shit?

That's it?

Freak Magnet said...

Can I ask a dumb question here?

You say you think the person who revealed the agent's name should be punished, yet, the person who KNOWS who revealed the name won't say who it was. Isn't that, in some way, aiding and abeiting?

Why is one okay and the other not? I mean, if I understand correctly, even therapists are required to report their patient if they believe the patient is going to kill someone or molest someone.

You can give someone privilege without having to be absolute.

Ace said...

You say you think the person who revealed the agent's name should be punished, yet, the person who KNOWS who revealed the name won't say who it was. Isn't that, in some way, aiding and abeiting?

If you are speaking in a legal sense, I honestly don't know. If you are speaking in a moral sense, I'm inclined to say yes, in some way.

Please keep in mind a couple of things as I discuss this topic...

1. This is about as dangerously close to discussing my work as I'd like to get. I have no intention of losing my job over this blog. I hope that explains some of the extent to which I'm dancing around the subject at hand.

2. I tend to separate my personal feelings from my professional feelings on most matters, to maintain my sense of objectivity. And I won't judge a peer's stance or action, having never been in that situation myself.

3. I'm fairly ambivalent on most things to begin with.

4. My initial argument was meant as a response to Stewie's post, which I disagree with as much for what I regard as an inherent flaw in his stance as for his opinion on the matter. (He disagrees, of course, and I can respect that.)

5. One of the things I don't miss about being a reporter was dealing with issues that extended beyond covering a game or event and writing a catchy lede. I never liked being involved in controversy from the standpoint of an outside observer.

All of that said, and plenty more said in the comments on his original post as well...

Most of the time, legally speaking, people are not prosecuted for inaction. Witness the people in the infamous Kitty Genovese case, who sat in their homes while a woman was murdered on their street. My beef with Stewie's argument in favor of the same, is that she did nothing. She didn't print the name of the agent and jeopardized no life.

Morally speaking, it's a judgment call. But there is a greater principle here than the life of any one person - either the agent or the reporter - I've elaborated on that more over at Stewie's blog, and don't feel it necessary to repeat it.

And to me, the good of the many outweighs the good of the few on an issue with potentially far-reaching ramifications.

Me? I think my loyalty goes something like this: I'm a human being first, an American second, a member of my family third and a journalist fourth.

But I'm an inexperienced journalist, and most of my experience is not in this sort of field. The toughest decision I have to make most days at work is whether to order dinner from the lousy Chinese place or the Mexican place that once sent us a live fly in our food.

I think I would go to my editors if I were in such a situation, and I would do what we eventually mutually agreed was right. But I'm a team player.

It's a matter of trust in the media to report the news rather than make it - think of Rather's interview with Saddam, back before the war. Why would CBS not tell the government where they were meeting, and send a team of SeALs rather than a team of cameramen? That would have saved thousands of lives, American and Iraqi both. But think of the precedent it sets. What subject would ever trust an interviewer again?

One last thing to bear in mind, my defense is directed primarily at Miller - the reporter who published no article and is going to jail - I, for one, would be averse to printing the name of an undercover operative (as Novak and Cooper did).