Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hard Time For Silence

The US Supreme Court refused to hear the case of the two journalists who have been found in contempt of court for refusing to identify the source who leaked the identity of a field operative of the CIA. Valerie Plame was outed in print by Robert Novak, who printed the story in his syndicated column. Because the identification of a spy is against Federal Law, and because Novak indicated he got the information from a White House 'source,' a federal investigation into the identity of the miscreant leaker was initiated.

Both Judith Miller (New York Times) and Matthew Cooper (Time) refused to reveal the source of the information they also received on the story, they were slapped with the contempt charge. It's important to note that neither has been charged with violating the federal law, merely for refusing to reveal their source, the actual violator. Still, they now face up to eighteen months in jail for their refusal to name names.

There has been plenty of fulmination and bloviation on the press's right to keep anonymous sources anonymous. However, that right, like all of the First Amendment rights, is not absolute. That is what makes this whole issue so complicated and so ticklish.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, however, laid out the whole issue quite neatly.

Whether Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, and Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, spend time in jail for contempt of court is of first concern to Miller, Cooper and those who practice the craft of journalism. But it should matter also to Americans generally, for the question at issue -- the ability of journalists to protect confidential sources -- bears directly on the ability of journalists to keep Americans informed.

That having been said, the STrib also acknowledges that limits even on the press occasionally have to be imposed when it is a matter of public need:

Sad as that outcome would be, legally it is correct. When the requirements of justice and the duties of journalists come into irreconcilable conflict, justice must prevail if its advocates can make a compelling case 1) that the information required from the journalists is relevant to a criminal case; 2) it can't be gotten elsewhere and 3) there is an overriding interest requiring its disclosure.

The honorable choice is to go to jail; they lose personally but they win professionally because no one, ultimately, can force them to break a confidence. But the prospect of jail time for Miller and Cooper is not Fitzgerald's fault, nor the courts'; it is the result of a clash between two ultimately irreconcilable responsibilities. For the reporters, it is the obligation to confidential sources -- without which much of what the public needs to know would be unavailable. For Fitzgerald and the courts, it is the obligation to justice -- without which this society could not function.

This remarkable newspaper (currently under attack by conservative pundit and blogger Hugh Hewitt for some of its 'liberal' opinions) not only got it right, but it also clearly laid out the reasons for their opinion.

Unlike most of the press these days, The STrib is doing its job cleanly and with dignity.


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