This past month, I attended the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in Las Vegas as a voting delegate.
The convention was an academic affair, with plenty of workshops and lectures designed to make attendees better journalists. But the lectures were overshadowed by the presence of the infamous Judith Miller of the Valerie Plame leak scandal, who had come to receive the SPJ’s First Amendment Award.
According to Miller, she had gone to jail because she believed that her source, Scooter Libby, was coerced into releasing her from their confidentiality agreement. But once she and Scooter had a good heart to heart, she agreed to testify.
At the delegation, there was a proposition on the docket that, once enacted, honored Miller once more… beyond the award bestowed earlier. I was one of two delegates who cast a no vote.
The known facts in Miller’s case do not warrant honoring her; she harmed journalism more than she helped it.
The principle in question is whether or not journalists should have the right to privileged communication so they can protect the anonymity of sources.
As a journalist, I believe deeply in this principle and understand that without such a privilege the powers that be could strike out at any and every goodhearted whistle blower who puts him or herself on the line to expose illegal activity, corruption or general wrongdoing. But I do not believe that this principle should be applied in all cases.
In my view, when a journalist enters into an agreement of anonymity with a source, the source should be providing information that actually exposes some sort of shady dealings. If a source were to tell me something under the condition of anonymity that didn’t expose injustice, I would feel that the source had not upheld his or her end of the deal—especially if the information only harmed my source’s enemies. And the only conclusion that I have been able to draw from the published facts is that Libby’s outing of Plame served only to damage his political opponents, which in my view breaks his contract with Miller.
Miller opted to go to jail rather than release Libby’s name on the premise that if the government can override anonymity, future whistleblowers might not be willing to risk talking to the press. And while this may be true, Libby was not a whistleblower at all. No one has been able to explain what dubious activities Plame was engaged in that required him to out her to the press.
Sure, it is important for journalists to have the right to protect sources, and I would like to see a federal shield law protecting that right. But it is equally important to ensure that journalists apply that right responsibly.
To protect a source’s anonymity in all cases invites the corrupt to use the press as a battlefield where they can attack one another behind a cloak of secrecy, thus undermining the values that the press purports to be upholding in the first place.
I, at this point, do not know all of Miller’s reasons for her actions and frankly, I don’t buy much of her explanation. All I know is that from where I sit it appears that only the Bush administration stood to gain from the Plame leak, and that Miller went down protecting a source that bastardized her profession and mine… and I see no reason to honor her for that.
John Patrick, a senior journalism major, is editorial director of the Campus Times. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.