Tim Robbins, in tackling the pretenses of patriotism, has risen to a challenge that mainstream journalism has largely failed to meet. Robbins’ provocative play about the Bush Administration’s handling of the Iraq war and the obsequiousness of an embedded press made its TV debut Sunday on the Sundance Channel.
*Embedded/Live* nails the media’s craven complicity in amplifying the drums of war. As the Los Angeles Times noted in its review of the filmed version of the play (which premiered here in 2003), when a chorus invokes the name of Robert Novak, the audience’s “laughter is followed by uneasy recognition. We might wish this were old news, but it’s still there staring us in the face every day.”
Indeed it is, for columnist Novak was the first to “out” Valerie Plame — wife of whistle-blower Joe Wilson, a former ambassador–as a CIA agent. The case landed New York Times reporter Judith Miller in jail, turning her into a *cause celebre* for her refusal to testify before a grand jury about her contact with sources in the Plame case. “If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press,” said Miller, dramatically equating the protection of secret sources with the survival of a free press.
But what her avowedly principled defense of journalistic sources may turn out to be is a window into the practice of official corruption of journalistic integrity in times of war, which is what Embedded/Live so effectively highlights.
Unfortunately, rather than a story about a martyr to the cause of journalistic ethics and a free press, this is about a reporter embedded over her head. It is a depressing example of how far Big Media has moved away from the journalistic ideal of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
Sure, the idea of protecting sources is a good one, in that reporters should keep their word and, by doing so, maintain their ability to secure information in the future. But ultimately the journalist is not morally or professionally beholden to sources but rather to the public. The salient fact of this ugly episode is that the White House was trying to use cultivated journalists, secret sourcing and classified information in an attempt to smear a legitimate whistle-blower who was challenging its rationale for leading the nation into war.
Wilson’s information was clearly important to the public debate, as evidenced by the CIA’s admission that he was right to be angry that phony reports of Iraq attempting to purchase enriched uranium had made it into President Bush’s State of the Union speech. Yet Miller and her defenders can’t or won’t understand that a free press in a democracy depends on the protection of honest witnesses and not on the coddling of those who use the power of government to smear critics.