Doug Clifton has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, deputy chief of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, editor of the Miami Herald and currently serves as the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He recently raised a fuss in journalistic circles by revealing that he was withholding from publication two “profoundly important” stories based on secret documents that the paper had obtained, for fear of subpoenas from a prosecutor seeking the newspaper’s sources.
Thomas Lang: The New York Times published an article [last Monday] saying that you withheld two articles for “fear of criminal prosecution.” Is that the real issue? If not, what is it?
Doug Clifton: The issue was source protection. We felt as though there was a high probability [that] if we told the two separate stories based on the documents that we had they would generate prosecutorial interest to try to determine the ultimate source of the document. Because we promised those sources confidentiality, we knew we would face a major showdown. Our practice is not under any circumstances — save for, God knows, some hypothetical — to reveal a source once we’ve given him or her a promise of confidentiality. So we had to face the reality that there’s a reasonably strong certainty that we’d be subpoenaed. So we decided to pursue other means of getting those stories in the paper. And we continue to do that. We are using the documents as a roadmap for conventional reporting.
TL: What was the worst-case scenario here? You said that you might face a [law]suit to reveal the sources. Is that the worst-case scenario? Or is there anything beyond that? … What could possibly happen? Revealing the sources?
DC: It wouldn’t lead to revealing the sources, because we wouldn’t reveal the sources. The worst-case scenario is that you get called before a grand jury and are compelled to testify, and you don’t, and you go to jail, and the newspaper gets fined X amount of dollars until you do. That’s the worst-case scenario.
TL: You’ve referred before to the “the corporate citizen, the corporate entity” as having a “different level of responsibility.” What is the corporate citizen? How are its responsibilities different than a newspaper?
DC: I don’t know. When I discussed that with [New York Times reporter David Cay] Johnston it was at the end of our conversation with all the issues, involving sourcing, the chilling effect, the increased tempo among prosecutors to seek reporters via subpoena. Then I was just chatting about the Time thing. In a way I understand the issue with [Norm] Pearlstine, and why he did this — and I don’t know, I’m just philosophizing — that there maybe some substantive difference between what an individual can do in the way of refusing to comply with a court order via traditional civil disobedience, and the way a corporation can. The corporation is a different creature. It doesn’t speak just for itself, it speaks for some of the people who constitute the corporation.
So I was just musing about that and [Johnston] chose to put that in the story as somehow central to what I was saying. I think it’s more a philosophical/legal question and I’m not equipped to answer.
TL: Still, that was an interesting way of putting it, even though you were just musing. Where do you find yourself [on the issue]?
DC: I guess I do think there is a distinction between what an individual can do and what a corporation can do — especially a publicly-held corporation.
TL: From a journalistic standpoint, is protecting a source a higher standard than releasing information for the public good?
DC: Yeah, I think that you wind up having to make a choice between the two. I think this is the case — [if] you make [a source] an assurance that his or her identity will be confidential, then you owe that person adherence to that assurance. I think that if your aren’t prepared to make that assurance, then you don’t enter into a relationship with them.
TL: You have said that with these two stories that you are going to continue to pursue them without using these documents. If you come to the point where you decide “We can’t nail this story,” have you thought about letting your “individual journalist” take it to another publication? Have you discussed that at all?
DC: No, we have not discussed that. But the answer would be no.
TL: What was your motive in disclosing this information at the end of your column back in June?