Journalists are understandably loath to call on a colleague to give up a source who’s been promised anonymity, as the credibility of the entire profession can suffer from such a public betrayal. The point is not the principle per se; it is the principle’s pragmatic value in the daily exchange of information between journalist and source. Many such exchanges would not be possible, as the profession is currently practiced, without the guarantee that a source’s name not be used. (Yes, the promise of anonymity is too promiscuously proffered, but that’s another matter.)
In most cases the decision to stick to this rule is–from the standpoint of self-interest at least–a no-brainer. Only when the interests of national safety or simple morality are so compelling as to be overwhelming would any professional journalist consider calling on a colleague to weaken this guarantee.
Enter Robert Novak. The conservative pundit knowingly blew CIA agent Valerie Plame’s cover, and possibly aided and abetted the commission of a felony by a White House official who leaked him the information. In any case, he undoubtedly cost the agency a fortune by forcing it to retrace the steps of Plame’s career and attempt to contain, if not redress, the damage. Operations would have to be rolled up; agents relocated; investments destroyed and, for all Novak may have known, lives endangered. As Murray Waas reported in The American Prospect, Novak was asked specifically not to publish Plame’s name because “he might potentially jeopardize her ability to engage in covert work, stymie ongoing intelligence operations and jeopardize sensitive overseas sources.”
Novak’s action served no patriotic purpose. Plame was not accused, or even suspected, of engaging in any form of illegal or immoral activity. There was no rogue CIA operation to be exposed or any compelling national interest to be protected. Novak was one of six journalists contacted by the White House in an attempt to weaken the credibility of Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, and punish his act of dissent, but Novak was the only patsy who took the bait.
Almost no one in the press wants to see Novak legally compelled to name his source, but a number of journalists–including, most prominently, Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register and former Washington Post columnist and ombudsman–have called on Novak to fess up on his own. National Society of Newspaper Columnists president Mike Leonard, a columnist for the Herald-Times of Bloomington, Indiana, speaking to Editor & Publisher, agrees, explaining, “Novak was either used or was a willing accomplice to a felony. Other journalists were also fed the same information, and they had the integrity not to run with the information. I’ve still never heard an explanation from Novak that makes sense.” Novak, we may note, has in fact revealed the name of an anonymous source once before–that of Russian spy Robert Hanssen. He also once told me he “admired” US officials who used him to lie to his readers. In other words, he is less a real “reporter” than a committed right-wing hack who plays one on TV. Still, given the precedent, it’s not an easy call. An easier one would be that his ass should be out the door in any self-respecting journalistic establishment, lest anyone get the idea that such behavior is condoned.
Of course, neither CNN, where he seems to appear every ten minutes, nor any newspaper that carries him–including most particularly the Washington Post–has gone so far as even to reprimand Novak. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, going farther off the deep end than usual, suspects an ideological conspiracy in the mere existence of debate. The editors attacked Leonard for allegedly harboring a double standard because he has criticized Novak’s actions and the Patriot Act for its “heavy-handed assaults on free speech.” The audacity of that accusation leaves one’s mouth agape. Do the Journal editors really fail to understand the difference between criticism of Novak’s unpatriotic and immoral outing of Plame and criticism of the Patriot Act’s unwarranted expansion of police power? Naturally, they blame “liberal bias,” as if no one in his or her right mind could possibly have any concern about the damage Novak did to what they almost mockingly term national security. They also ignore the fact that of those journalists surveyed by Editor & Publisher, the vast majority supported Novak’s unwillingness to name his source, even though many if not most were highly critical of his ethics in using the information to flame Plame.
Although journalistic liberalism is now widely understood to be a myth, conservatives seem to think they can trot out the charge on behalf of their cause no matter how transparently polemical their intention or the accusation. Not only do the Journal editors sound as if they’re channeling Philip Agee, but right-wing rumormongers–including Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Andrew Sullivan and David Frum–are whining that the dreaded “liberal bias” disease has prevented most of the mass media from following them into the gutter this one time by retailing unproven and apparently untrue allegations about John Kerry and an intern. Offering a lesson on the inner workings of the right-wing media food chain, Limbaugh complained, “It’s all over the UK press! It’s front page!” He was referring to Rupert Murdoch’s titty tabloid, the Sun, which picked up on false rumors trumpeted by Drudge.
That’s where we’ve landed: It’s OK to reveal national security secrets but wrong not to print lies about candidates’ sex lives. One almost gets the impression that conservatives are not really serious about media criticism and see it merely as a stick with which to beat back criticism of their own hypocrisy.
Personal Ad Space: The paperback edition of What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, was just released by Basic Books, with a new preface and long new chapter on Iraq war coverage; fewer typos, too. Look for it next to The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)Leads America, just out from Viking.