Beth King, Communications Manager, (317) 507-8911
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Journalists rely too much on confidential sources to uncover government corruption and they should be careful when offering sources confidentiality, said two political journalists involved in the 2003 CIA leak case and the ensuing Scooter Libby trial, which placed journalists front and center in an international political scandal.
In a panel discussion Saturday during the 2007 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference in Washington, D.C., Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun Times and former Time, Inc., editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine discussed the ethical questions of journalists, the resulting implications and the lessons learned from becoming central players in a criminal prosecution and scandal. The panel was moderated by Bob Franken, a former CNN political correspondent and columnist.
The case started with Robert Novak’s column, “Mission to Niger,” that named Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative. Days later, Matthew Cooper of Time followed suit, naming his source of information. In the end, a grand jury subpoenaed five journalists, including Novak, Cooper, Judith Miller, Tim Russert and Bob Woodward. Through it all, those close to the story said there were many revelations.
“There is a vast difference between saying ‘I will keep your name out of print or broadcast’ and ‘I will protect your name in the face of a grand jury or a subpoena’,” Pearlstine said in an article published by the Working Press. “The decision to make a source confidential cannot be made on the fly without first asking at least one editor about it,” he said. “Confidentiality requires a binding legal document that can be hard to get a waiver on later.”
Together, with basic journalistic principles, Novak said his experience revealed far more personal aspects. Although he was attacked by editorial writers and educators from across the country who demanded he divulge his source, Novak said there also were many loyal players.
“The blood of ideology is stronger than the water of journalistic solidarity,” Novak said. “The newspapers that carry my column stuck with me, for which I shall be eternally grateful. The unconditional support by a great liberal newspaper, The Washington Post, was incalculably important for me. But looking at the broader community of newspapers, I was stunned how little editorial support I received once it was reported. I was under massive pressure from the feds. Indeed, the only editorial expression of solidarity for me when it was widely perceived, however, incorrectly, that I was being forced by the feds to reveal my sources, the only such solidarity came from the Wall Street Journal.”
When asked about the pending federal media shield law in Congress, both Pearlstine and Novak agreed it is necessary to preserve open government and to uncover stories the public deserves to know. Yet, there is still work to be done.
“The current proposed media shield law has some holes that need to be addressed,” Pearlstine said. “But, it is a step in the right direction.”
In the past year, The Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s most broad-based journalism-advocacy organization, has raised more than $30,000 to support a campaign for the passage of a federal shield law. To learn more about the proposed legislation, and SPJ’s involvement, visit www.spj.org/shieldlaw.asp.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, visit www.spj.org.