Crystal Ball Journalism

While we all wait for special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to announce the outcome of his investigation into who leaked Valerie Plame’s (or Wilson’s, or “Flame’s”) name to reporters, it seems that everyone is war-gaming what it all might mean for journalism once it shakes out.

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg weighed in on a rather dour note last Tuesday, writing that “Anyone who cares about civil liberties, freedom of information, or even just fair play should have been skeptical about Fitzgerald’s investigation from the start,” and that the resolution of the investigation may “come at a cost to principles liberals hold dear: the press’s right to find out, the government’s ability to disclose, and the public’s right to know.”

His point was that if Karl Rove and/or Scooter Libby are indicted under either a “seldom used espionage law” or Section 641 of the U.S. Code, which outlaws the theft of government property, then reporters would likely experience a “chilling effect” (a phrase hereby nominated for our recently announced war on cliché), because government employees would be less likely to leak information for fear of prosecution.

Relying on that old, unattributable construction, “some say,” Weisberg holds that “Some government officials” — Which officials? Don’t ask — “say they fear the impact because they know that it is often difficult these days to try to justify a national security decision, or warn of an impending threat, or even complain about some kinds of budget cuts without slipping into classified territory.”

In short, Weisberg’s fear that Fitzgerald will bring little more than “creative crap charges” against Libby and Rove seems to lead him to the conclusion that the investigation should never have been undertaken in the first place. In the end, he feels, the damage to the relationship between administration officials and reporters will be done more violence than it was worth.

The New York Times’ David E. Sanger, on the other hand, struck a more measured note this past Sunday. While he agrees that “What began as a narrow case on a specific leak, many fear, has morphed into a broader threat to the way business is done [in Washington, DC], a system that often benefits both sides,” he isn’t nearly so certain that the investigation will all but doom the leaking of information to reporters.

Where Weisberg sees the possibility of a permanent rift in the leaker/leakee relationship between government officials and the press, Sanger — who himself relies on government leaks for his bread and butter — sees any impact as temporary. He writes that, in the end:

The issue of secrecy won’t go away. This week, a prosecutor may send a shot across Washington’s bow: Any indictment is bound to change the unspoken rules of authorized and unauthorized leaks, even if just for a while. But the week after, government officials will have to explain to allies, other nations and reporters why they are so worried that Iran may be building a bomb, and why they believe North Korea must permit inspections of every nook, cranny and cave in the country. And to do so, they may feel compelled to reach into their bag of secrets.

Weisberg has written about politics for years, and he does start with a kernel of truth, but to us his vision seems too apocalyptic by half. It is Sanger who looks to be the one who actually put some thought into this matter, and who reaches the more levelheaded and pragmatic conclusion.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.