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Why should the press have special protection?

By October 5, 2003Uncategorized

I lived through the Watergate Era. I idolized Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and I read All the President’s Men before I was old enough to understand much of the political intrigue which was the backbone of that book. I may have been too young to grasp the book’s finer points, but I grasped that politicians needed to be closely watched. Especially Nixon. But not just him. All politicians, and all people who gain power, had the capacity to abuse that power. Fortunately, the press was there to watch them. Thank god for Bernstein and Woodward and Ben Bradley.

I carried that thought for many years. I read the Pentagon Papers, and I questioned authority. But I never questioned the Press’s right to gather information in whatever way it had to. The public’s right to know was paramount. That’s what I believed, and that’s what –for the most part– I still believe. The thing I’m not so sure about is whether the mainstream Press should be essentially unaccountable for how it goes about gathering the news.

There are a lot of respectable members of the Press, who work hard to get the story right and who focus on important issues. I admire those people, and I feel fortunate to know a few personally. However, increasingly, there are members of the media business who are —how shall I put it?— less than assiduous in their approach to important issues. And there are a lot of media types who aren’t even covering serious news. The word “infotainment” comes to mind.

In the world of broadcast journalism it is no secret that there has been increased pressure to make money, or at least not lose so much money in the news departments. Running a news organization is a costly enterprise. You have to have expensive equipment and hire talented people to run the equipment. And, of course, you have to hire reporters.

What’s a network to do? One thing it can do is to hire younger, less-experienced (and less expensive) reporters. Another thing it can do is to cover sensational topics that attract more viewers and thereby boost ratings, which in turn allows it to command higher rates for advertising. Sensational news is good for boosting ratings, and as 60 Minutes proved, investigative journalism can be pretty sensational. As more “investigative” news shows came on the scene the number of sensational stories were perhaps harder to find. Maybe that’s what led NBC Dateline to fake the explosion of a GM truck. Well, NBC wound up having to pay GM for that one.

So, obviously, the press doesn’t have blanket immunity for its mistakes. But they get especially strong protection from lawsuits for libel and slander when they cover Public Figures. And who can object to that? After all, the press is our only protection against politicians who abuse power and conceal their corruption. Right?

Yeah, for the most part. But, as I found out when I worked in a couple of political campaigns, politicians routinely use the press to leak information about their opponents. And if the information is sensational or shocking the press is only too glad to publicize it. Assuming that is at least plausibly true.

More recently, we see this concept playing out with the Plame affair where ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife was outed by Robert Novak as a CIA agent. Who leaked this information to Novak? Was it someone in the Republican administration who wanted to retaliate against Wilson for having contradicted President Bush’s State of the Union statement about Iraq having purchased yellowcake Uranium from Niger?

Well, it’s not outside the realm of normal operating procedure, political or journalistic. Except in this case it appears that the person who leaked the information may have violated the law. Does Novak know who the person who leaked the information is? He’s not saying, claiming the need to protect his source. I don’t have a problem with him protecting his source. I’m all for the press needing their internal sources so that they can ferret out corruption and political misdeed.

But this isn’t Watergate, and the press isn’t ferreting out political misdeed; it is –from what I can tell– willingly participating in pure political retribution. And, if that’s the case (and I’m not saying it is because I don’t know), I wonder why the press should have special protection? Just exactly what sort of behavior are we trying to reward by giving them protection in cases like this?

Update: Glenn Reynolds argues that people aren’t going to put up with Novak’s claim that he is entitled to keep his sources secret. I hope he’s right.


  • Bruce Hayden says:

    One problem with this whole thing is that I really do notknow if there really is a scandal. We have been repeatedlyassured that a couple of members of the Administrationleaked the information to a half a dozen reporters, but Idon’t know who either the members of the Administration northe reporters are. It almost seems like a scam protectedby “confidentiality”. Prove me wrong. Get some crediblenames out there (and I don’t mean Rove either, unless, hisouting is real, and not, as was obvious, purely for spite).

  • bham says:

    It’s hard to believe that Novak has friends in the Bush White House. He is opposed to most, if not all, of the administration’s Middle East policy and has been quite vocal in that opposition. It’s reasonable to conclude that he and his source were not collaborating. This whole thing is probably a whole lot less sinister than the news media, pundits and political junkies are trying to make it. Also–while some of us are intent on outing the leaker, would the same some of us want to know the legendary source, Deep Throat? Heck, yeah!

  • Ernie says:

    I should have said that “Iraq sought to purchase” yellowcake Uranium. Bush never said that Iraq actually bought Uranium from Niger. This is an example of something that I would ordinarily just edit without notice, but in light of my recent comments about editing a post after the fact I thought I’d leave it in and leave this comment.

  • lk says:

    Outing a CIA agent transcends politics. It is a serious federal crime (not like the Justice Dept’s California medical marijuana arrests). I hope there is a seriousness recognized that will not prolong this like Watergate (over 2 years). Mr. Novak has done so much backtracking and changing his story I wonder if he should be entitled to protection. I’d like to see him testify under oath not to get the source, just to see if he can give us the straight scoop. Instead we rely on Tim Russert to get the story from him, and Russert cannot ask a follow-up question to save his life.

  • Laura in DC says:

    Do you think this scandal will reach the level of Watergate? I doubt it, but didn’t Watergate start out with just a few articles in the back pages of the Washington Post and then explode?

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