I don’t think that I could go to jail for a principle, but that’s because I’m a weakling. At the same time, I’d like to think that there are principles that are important enough to me that I would defend them by going to jail. So I reconcile these two somewhat conflicting thoughts by not putting myself in a position where I might have to choose between not betraying a source and ordering from that good Vietnamese place on Amsterdam whenever I want to.
So this morning, Judith Miller, she of the shoddy WMD reporting, went to jail for (ostensibly) a principle: namely that a reporter who has promised anonymity to a source should not give up that source’s name to anyone, be they dressed in black robes or no. A friend and journalism school colleague argued vehemently to me last week that Norman Pearlstein, the editor of Time, Inc., should never have undermined HIS reporter, Matthew Cooper, by having the magazine turn over documents rather than having the reporter himself do it. Cooper, who was being held in contempt in the same case, sleeps at home tonight. This friend argued–and I agree–that while Pearlstein got Cooper out of an ethical jam, he ensured that no sensitive source would ever again speak off the record to Time. If editors and reporters cave, much of the journalism establishment would have it, there will be no more leaks of important information.
So this is where I take a deep breath and try to be a pundit, but it’s where I come to one of the many reasons I’m not invited onto those shows. I’m a deliberative sort by nature, but I didn’t have quite the gut reaction I expected in this case either. Something is weird here. And we don’t know enough to know exactly what is going on. Even the Times’s story confused me a little bit. There’s Valerie Plame, who was the CIA agent whose name was leaked. This was supposedly in retaliation for an anti-WMD op-ed piece written by her husband. Of course, Judy Miller wrote the dodgy WMD stories for the Times. And of course, even though these confidential sources have now been revealed to the judge, we, the people, don’t know who they are (Karl Rove). At least not officially. And it was the leak that was illegal in the first place. But if the judge now knows the sources, why put Miller in jail? Granted, she doesn’t seem particularly likable, but that’s not a punishable offense.
All of this just leaves me scratching my head as to the motives of Miller (though the LA Times hypothesizes that she’s trying for a book deal–which my friend also mentioned, though she did so as a way of saying that a couple months in prison wouldn’t be so bad. I continue scratching that same spot on my head about the judge’s motives. Miller didn’t even write a story about this leak–and Robert Novak did, though he’s presumably cooperating. Honestly, even though I think he was wrong, it’s Pearlstein’s position I most understand. Criticize him for bowing to Time Warner shareholders, but the man also allowed his reporter to stand his ground AND hug his kid tonight.
I meant to say something about how happy I am to see Sarah Vowell subbing for Maureen Dowd, but that can wait a day. It’s lights-out and the warden wants us in our bunks.