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Defending Judith Miller’s Indefensible Choice
How do you expose corruption by protecting the corrupt?
Extra! September/October 2005
By Jim Naureckas
No reasonable person believes that a journalist’s right to protect their confidential sources is absolute. If a government official told a reporter—after obtaining a promise of strict confidentiality—that he was a serial killer planning to strike again, who would argue that the reporter should conceal that official’s identity—let alone defy a subpoena from a grand jury seeking evidence of the official’s crimes?
This is not to say that journalists aren’t often justified in keeping their sources secret. Government (and corporate) wrongdoing is frequently exposed by people without a legal right to reveal the incriminating information, who may face retribution if they are revealed as whistleblowers. Many times the public interest in learning about malfeasance outweighs the laws that protect official secrets.
In such instances, reporters are fully justified in concealing their sources—even if that means committing civil disobedience. But such a step requires justification: If someone breaks the law by giving information to a journalist, or reveals to a journalist that they have committed a crime, the journalist has to be able to argue that in that specific case, protecting the source’s identity serves the public more than bringing the source to trial.
That’s the argument that is virtually never made in defense of the New York Times’ Judith Miller, who is currently in jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury about the Bush administration’s exposure of Valerie Plame Wilson as an undercover employee of the CIA. Few if any of Miller’s defenders—who include many usually clear-sighted pundits and media activists—are willing to argue that her refusal to cooperate with the prosecutor in itself serves the public interest. This is unsurprising, because the prevailing assumption is that Miller is protecting an official who outed Wilson as a CIA operative in retaliation for her husband Joseph Wilson’s writing an op-ed about the administration’s WMD deceptions. It’s hard to argue that it serves the public when powerful government officials anonymously expose classified information in order to punish whistleblowers.
Since Miller’s decision to remain silent can’t be defended as serving any public good in itself, her advocates are forced to argue as if any breach of source confidentiality will have a devastating effect on investigative journalism—even as they sometimes concede that, like the privilege against testifying accorded to lawyers, priests and doctors, there have to be some limits on journalists’ ability to protect their sources. Thus the New York Times editorial page, stalwart in its defense of Miller, acknowledged (7/7/05) that “responsible journalists recognize that press freedoms are not absolute and must be exercised responsibly.