Norman Pearlstine was not a happy camper. It was spring 2005, and for almost a year the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. had been wrestling with a pair of subpoenas issued by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald seeking notes and testimony from Matthew Cooper, a reporter in Time magazine’s Washington bureau.
Fitzgerald, of course, was investigating who had disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent, to several prominent journalists. Time Inc. had already attempted to mollify Fitzgerald by allowing Cooper to offer limited testimony regarding his conversations with sources. But when Fitzgerald demanded additional material and testimony, Cooper refused, and the company backed his decision. Federal judge Thomas Hogan held both Cooper and Time Inc.—as well as the New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had also declined to cooperate with Fitzgerald—in contempt of court. Many journalists treated Time and the Times as champions of the First Amendment.
That was certainly the mindset of the Times’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. At a meeting with Pearlstine to discuss the case, Sulzberger produced a button that read FREE JUDY, FREE MATT, FREE PRESS, and proposed that ten thousand of them be distributed to staff members at their respective news organizations. Floyd Abrams, the noted First Amendment attorney who more than thirty years earlier had helped win a landmark decision for the Times in the Pentagon Papers case, represented both companies in court. To Pearlstine it was clear that Sulzberger saw the Plame fight as another historic test of the First Amendment.
But privately Pearlstine was having second thoughts. “Although we were ready to spend millions of dollars on litigation, I had to ask whether this strange case was the one on which we wanted to draw the line by ignoring a contempt order,” Pearlstine recalls in Off the Record. Eventually, Pearlstine broke publicly with Sulzberger, fired Abrams, and acceded to Fitzgerald’s demands that Time Inc. surrender Cooper’s interview notes. The decision let loose a deluge of criticism of Pearlstine, with many journalists claiming he had betrayed the sacred tenets of the profession to appease his corporate masters. Predictably, Pearlstine, who left Time Inc. in 2005, has written a book chiefly concerned with rebutting those attacks. In this attempt he is only partially successful.
Pearlstine’s professional roots are grounded as much in law as journalism. In fact, in Off the Record he says he was “born to be a lawyer.” His father was a partner in a twenty-lawyer shop near Philadelphia that employed six members of his extended family. Pearlstine fils worked there in his youth before attending Haverford College in 1960, where he gravitated toward the campus newspaper and spent summers working for papers in Pennsylvania, including The Philadelphia Inquirer. After graduation Pearlstine was accepted to both Columbia University’s journalism program and the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. Bowing to his family’s wishes, he chose law school, but after graduating he reversed course and went to work for The New York Times as a copy boy. From that modest toehold Pearlstine went on to The Wall Street Journal, where he would remain for most of the next twenty-four years, eventually becoming executive editor. Not long after leaving the Journal in 1992, Pearlstine was offered the job as editor-in-chief of Time Inc. by Gerald Levin, the CEO of Time Warner.
Pearlstine’s résumé is relevant because, as he readily acknowledges, his ascent was fueled in part by his ability to cultivate powerful allies. Pearlstine notes that as a reporter he formed friendships with many of the people he covered, and that his close association with Peter Kann, Dow Jones’s longtime CEO, “led to all my success” at the Journal. The job at Time Inc. came about in part because he and Levin both served on the board of Haverford College. Of course, many high-fliers are gifted networkers, and Pearlstine’s record reflects no discredit upon him. But it does indicate that his instincts are those of a corporate striver. Suspicion of power is second nature to many journalists, but apparently not to Pearlstine. He seems comfortable serving as a bright node on the power grid.
Pearlstine’s outlook becomes apparent when he contrasts his response to the Plame investigation with that of Arthur Sulzberger: “I worried that Sulzberger, consciously or unconsciously, saw strident, uncompromising defiance of the courts as a way to redeem his and his paper’s reputations, regaining the glory days of the Pentagon Papers with Abrams.”
Nor does Pearlstine have kind words for his illustrious legal counsel. “From the transcript, Abrams’s argument before the court of appeals seemed unfocused. Fairly or not, I was worried that he was spread thin—distracted by his other cases and his desire to publicize his autobiography.”