Nightmare Over, the Press and Bloggers Consider Libby Trial’s Legacy

Many media outlets and bloggers are questioning the trial's effect on journalism. The consensus: it doesn't look good.

With the I. Lewis Libby four-count guilty verdict now “old news” and much talk turned to the possibility of a presidential pardon, many media outlets and bloggers are instead questioning the trial’s effect on journalism. The consensus: it doesn’t look good.

An Associated Press story today analyzes what the trial will mean for the press — including newspapers possibly not covering stories for fear of the legal fees associated with resisting subpoenas, and readers losing out on important journalism.

Editorials in both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal foretold doom and gloom for journalists. “It would have been sensible for Mr. Fitzgerald to end his investigation after learning about Mr. Armitage,” says the Post editorial. “Instead, like many Washington special prosecutors before him, he pressed on, pursuing every tangent in the case. In so doing he unnecessarily subjected numerous journalists to the ordeal of having to disclose confidential sources or face imprisonment. One, Judith Miller of the New York Times, lost several court appeals and spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify. The damage done to journalists’ ability to obtain information from confidential government sources has yet to be measured.”

But the Journal spread the blame around some more. “As for the media, most of our brethren were celebrating the conviction yesterday because it damaged the Bush administration they loathe,” the editorial states. “But they too will pay a price for holding Mr. Fitzgerald’s coat. The Bush administration will soon be history, but the damage Mr. Fitzgerald has done to the ability to protect media sources and to the willingness of government officials to speak openly to reporters will last far longer.”

Indeed, some bloggers wondered whether the trial was worth its high cost for journalists. “The media needs to be wary of the precedents that have now been set about sending reporters to jail to force them to testify in a matter that did not touch seriously on national security since Fitzgerald already knew that Armitage had leaked and that there was no evidence that Valerie Plame’s status was covert,” writes Betsy on Betsy’s Page. “This became a political dispute and reporters were forced to testify in court about conversations with sources. They will not have any defense against testifying in future cases. And there will be future cases. Was getting Libby for not remembering what he said to which reporters really worth it?”

Others jumped at the chance to criticize journalists and their practices. “What needs to end here is not the vigorous prosecution of the liars who feed garbage to the press and then lie about it, but rather the willingness of journalists to protect the anonymity of government sources who anonymously sell the government’s line, especially when they turn out to be so incredibly, outrageously wrong as this ‘government’ was about Iraq’s WMD,” writes Kagro X on the Daily Kos.

For some, the verdict is just another reason to deny journalists a federal shield law. “The trial and conviction of I. Lewis Libby Jr. is a great illustration of why courts should not recognize a testimonial privilege for journalists,” reflects Norm Pattis of Crime and Federalism. “While trials and journalists both are preoccupied with arriving at the truth, they do so by different standards. The law insists on transparency; journalists often proceed under cloak of darkness.”

Yet no matter how you slice it, journalists have lost ground. As Howard Kurtz put it in a column today for the Post, the Libby case has given journalism “a black eye.”

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Christina Hernandez is a CJR intern.