“Hey Jailbird - Forget About That Award!”

Throughout the long, torturous and often tedious appeals process waged to try to keep Time’s Matt Cooper and the New York Times’ Judith Miller out of jail, Miller has emerged as perhaps the unlikeliest standard-bearer for journalistic ethics you could find.

Miller has been pilloried for some time now by elements of the media for the fact that she, possibly more than any other mainstream American journalist, carried the Bush administration’s water in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Acting as little more than a willing stenographer for con man Ahmed Chalabi’s tall tales about WMD stockpiles in Iraq, Miller tacked her byline onto some of the more irresponsible claims floated — and “floated” is the right word — about Iraq’s armaments during 2002 and early 2003. We shouldn’t forget that her employer, the New York Times, willingly published each and every one her stories, which relied on claims made by Iraqi exiles who, almost to a person, have been thoroughly discredited. Sadly, the Times was hardly the only news outlet duped by Iraqi exiles. After it became apparent that the original rationale for invasion — Saddam’s stash of WMD — was entirely without merit, the Times and the Washington Post offered lame mea culpas for their own gullibility and culpability.

Prodded by Dan Okrent, its public editor at the time, the Times devoted a total of 1,144 words to outlining where it went wrong in its prewar intelligence reporting — which was quite a bit shorter than the 7,397 words the paper dedicated to examining the fabrications of plagiarist and serial liar Jayson Blair in May 2003, an episode which led to the resignations of editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd.

And while Miller took the lead on many of the stories the Times had second thoughts about, she was not mentioned in the vaguely apologetic editors’ note.

More recently, some self-appointed mind readers with powers of divination apparently greater than our own have speculated that, in going to jail for her as-yet-to-be-determined role in leaking or being leaked to in the Plame case, Miller was cleverly attempting to rehabilitate her image.

Maybe, or maybe not. But, either way, it looks like not all is forgiven in the journalistic community. Editor & Publisher reports today that the board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors recently cast an unanimous vote to overturn an earlier decision by its board to give the group’s annual “Conscience in Media” award to Miller.

E&P quotes Anita Bartholomew, a member of ASJA, who wrote, in a resignation letter following the group’s initial decision to award the honor to Miller, “The First Amendment is designed to prevent government interference with a free press. Miller, by shielding a government official or officials who attempted to use the press to retaliate against a whistleblower, and scare off other would-be whistleblowers, has allied herself with government interference with, and censorship of, whistleblowers. When your source IS the government, and the government is attempting to use you to target a whistleblower, the notion of shielding a source must be reconsidered. To apply standard practices regarding sources to hiding wrongdoing at the highest levels of government perverts the intent of the First Amendment.”

Bartholomew has a point that, clearly, the “government” (more precisely, individuals within the government) was trying to use the press in what appears to be an attempt to discredit Joseph Wilson. But to say that Miller has “allied herself with government interference with, and censorship of, whistleblowers” is going a step too far. We don’t know that, and neither does Bartholomew. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what Miller is taking the rap for is the principle that reporters have a right to keep confidential sources confidential — not the principle of protecting a government official with evil intentions from prosecution. While her silence is, in some way, protecting someone in government from public exposure, that happens to be merely a side effect.

There are no saints in this case, Miller included, and no one but she knows how much of her choice to head to jail rather than reveal her sources is part of an attempt to polish her image after the WMD reporting fiasco. It is also unclear just what role she played in the current matter; she is in jail, as she herself has wryly noted, for not revealing the source for a story she never wrote.

But Bartholomew’s stance rests on the wobbly legs of situational ethics. Reconsidering shielding a source in order to out wrongdoing by a government official is a matter not to be taken lightly — and in this case, it’s not at all clear that it would be the proper course of action. A source is a source; we don’t have the choice of only protecting those whose ethics and motives are pure as newly-fallen snow.

There is still plenty of life left in this story, and new facts are coming out each day. But no matter how unhappy one may be with government forces trying to sway the media, the concept of keeping pledges to anonymous sources has a usefulness to the reading public that will outlive not only any contemporary scandal, but also indignant preachments from the likes of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Paul McLeary

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