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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Cooper To Testify

According to the AP, Time reporter Matt Cooper has reversed course and agreed to testify regarding Plamegate, after receiving a "somewhat dramatic" call from the source to whom he'd pledged confidentiality. Here's an interesting detail:
Cooper said he had been told earlier that his source had signed a general waiver of confidentiality but that he did not trust such waivers because he thought they had been gained from executive branch employees under duress. He told the court that he needed not a general waiver but a specific waiver from his source, which he did not get until Wednesday.

I know a lot of people will be down on Cooper for this. But given Time's capitulation, it appears he really didn't have much else to protect, substantively. I can't imagine how tough this situation must have been for Cooper (with whom I had a drink in one of those weird Washington know-someone-who-knows-someone experiences a few months ago -- he's a really nice guy), who has a young son. I'm engaged to a reporter, and even imagining someone you love going to jail on a principle that's largely been obviated is pretty tough to do.

Update: There's been a lot of talk about getting Congress to pass a shield law to protect reporters from this sort of jeopardy. I'm 100% behind this -- I think that the social gains from protecting reporters' ability to protect sources far outweigh the social losses from allowing prosecution of these sorts of cases -- as despicable as White House staffers' behavior seems to have been in this one.

4 Comments:

Anonymous George Lovell said...

Well, I wouldn't support that law. I'd at least want to be pretty careful about how "reporter" gets defined. I wouldn't want it to include phony reporters sent to press conferences to toss softballs.

And, frankly, I think Judith Miller is closer to that model of reporter than to a real reporter. She has repeatedly behaved irresponsibly and recklessly from a position of considerable power, serving as an easily manipulated shill for imoral persons abusing their power. Her terrible and occasionally knowingly false reporting bears considerable responsibility for thousands of deaths in Iraq. She's still protecting the White House.

So, Jonah, I'm not sure whether it is your feelings toward a particular reporter or my feelings toward a particular reporter that is clouding judgment on this one. But I think it is pretty easy to cabin the circumstances of this case and not threaten any general principles served by protecting sources. There's a big gap between protecting an informant who puts him or herself at risk to reveal wrongdoing and protecting someone who engages in criminal activity for reasons that have nothing plausible to do with revealing wrongdoing by higher ups. And even if those lines are tough to draw, I'd still be against any absolute shield that would protect what the White House did in this case.

On a related but I think more important point: There is no grounds for privileging sources who knowingly lie to reporters to distort coverage (and actually, a moral obligation for reporters to reveal sources who knowingly lie.) Establishing that principle would solve a lot of problems. It would have stopped Starr/Isikoff in its tracks, e.g.

7/06/2005 8:18 PM  
Blogger Jonah B. Gelbach said...

We are going to have to disagree here. I think the inevitable costs of allowing some charlatans to get away with bad behavior are outweighed by the benefits of having whistleblowers expect they will be protected. I think there is a real danger in allowing prosecutors to decide precisely who "engages in criminal activity for reasons that have nothing plausible to do with revealing wrongdoing by higher ups."

I agree that Judy Miller has done some awful, indefensible things. I've thought for a long time that the NYT should have fired her for her -- at best -- shoddy reporting and credulousness. But that issue is a different one from this one. Bill Keller said it well in today's NYT: you go to court with the case you've got.

As for this:

There is no grounds for privileging sources who knowingly lie to reporters to distort coverage (and actually, a moral obligation for reporters to reveal sources who knowingly lie.)

No reporter whom I know would really disagree. In fact, reporters generally consider themselves sprung from confidentiality agreements when sources lie to them. That doesn't mean they always reveal the source, but they certainly wouldn't feel obligated to go to jail to protect him/her. I don't really see the relevance of this issue to the present case, in any event, since there couldn't be any criminal activity here if Rove, Libby, or whoever, was lying.

7/07/2005 10:22 AM  
Anonymous George Lovell said...

Well, as I suggested, my feelings about Miller may be clouding my judgment on this one.

Five years ago, I would have easily agreed with you. But I have a general concern that the relationship between the media and persons in power has been changing in ways that we don’t yet understand, and that call for, at least, reexamination of old assumptions.

The current regime has been exceptionally successful at manipulating news coverage, and their success has allowed them to cause tremendous carnage. Their ability to manipulate is helped by a star system of reporters, where stars like Miller wield tremendous power as a result of their willingness to serve as conduits for people like Rove. The problem is that that this arrangement creates symbiotic relationships- the reporter’s interests get too mixed up with the interests of persons in power; they know that if the regime goes down, they (or at least their professional reputation) goes down with them. This is a very dangerous arrangement. It is mostly a problem for star reporters, not most reporters. Woodward and Bernstein, remember, were beat reporters at the city desk; the White House staff at the Post and Times missed the story completely.

The issue of lying sources, I agree, is only tangentially related to this case. But it is important in thinking about Miller’s judgment here. During the run-up to Iraq, Miller repeatedly reported things as truth that were told to her by White House people who she later learned were deliberately lying to her to manipulate media coverage, and probably the same people she is protecting now. She has never explained what went wrong, and has chosen not to reveal, and presumably continues to rely upon, the liars. So, my guess is that, in making choices here, what is at stake for her is not just some abstract freedom of the press principle, but her reputation. To burn her source (whether earlier for lying to her or now for committing a crime) is to reveal the shoddiness of her reporting, and the coziness of her relationships with the people she is supposed to be covering.

Ideally, the decision to burn a source is up to the reporter, freed from coercion of jail. The lines, as you say, are tough to draw, and I don’t trust prosecutors and judges either. But I also don’t trust Miller to make a professional judgment on this one. And I don’t think the rules are absolute- reporters obviously have to make judgment calls about when to stand on principle in protecting confidentiality- I won’t bother to trot out the hypotheticals about ticking bombs and molesting children.

I am a bit befuddled by this whole case, and have no good guesses about what is going on. I can’t believe Fitzgerald would be doing this solely for the Plame leak. I also can’t understand why the White House has not begun to attack him as a goat-humping Chomskyite who voted for McGovern. Either they are very afraid or not at all afraid.

7/07/2005 12:36 PM  
Blogger strategery4 said...

I think there is a real danger in allowing prosecutors to decide precisely who . . .

Though I have to admit that I haven't been following this as closely as you -- and while Fitzgerald does strike me as a nut in the fine tradition of special / independent prosecutors corrupted by absolute power -- isn't the key figure here really the judge? I know nothing about his background but don't have the sense that he's gone mad with power; he's just really pissed off at Miller and Cooper, and I'm finding it a bit hard to believe that he would go apeshit if the issue really is as trivial as it appears to be. The fact that the Supremes wouldn't even take the case (which as I understand it requires only 4 justices) also seems telling. Is Fitzgerald required to submit some kind of report explaining what the hell has been going on here (hopefully with salacious details of Bob Novak's craven behavior), or did that lapse with whatever law it was that gave us Ken Starr et al.?

On the issue of a shield law -- and appropos of this medium -- Mickey Kaus has made some interesting points on his Slate blog about whether you can (a) provide a privilege that extends beyond the MSM to include bloggers without (b) effectively giving evryobody such a privilege. So that leaves me a bit dubious of shield laws, though perhaps this is just another front in Mickey's war on the LA Times.

7/07/2005 10:28 PM  

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