2005-07-15 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach


Every reporter, even those who work for community weeklies such as The Wave has confidential sources. Sources who have the story but can’t allow their names to be published for legitimate reasons are often necessary if the real story is to be told.

For example, late last year a teacher called to tell us that the principal of her school had assaulted another teacher in the building.

It should be clear to everybody that the teacher who called us would have been censured at best and fired at worst for talking with us about her principal.

There was a legitimate reason for us to protect her from that punishment. Although the Department of Education first said that the assault never happened (it later changed its statement to denigrate the teacher and praise the principal), we managed to reach out to the teacher, who told us her story and had nothing to lose by going public.

Had she not, we probably would have used the story, quoting “unnamed sources close to the story.” Is that a perfect way to do it? Of course not. It was an important story, one that led to the principal being replaced and readers of The Wave had a right to hear it.

While there are those who believe that papers make up their “unnamed sources” to write a story that may or not be true, that is not the case.

Think about it for a moment. There are teachers who want to talk about their schools. There are nurses who want to speak about their hospitals or health care facilities. There are police who want to speak about what they consider to be problems in the criminal justice system.

All of those kinds of stories that “whistleblowers” may be able to tell are important because those institutions they work for are important to the community.

Everybody is familiar now with the most famous confidential source of our time – “Deep Throat.”

Deep Throat was the name given to the informant who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their 1972 investigation of the Watergate break in that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s decision to resign the presidency under threat of impeachment.

Deep Throat met Woodward, who he had known for years, in a dark parking garage early in the morning hours. Only Woodward knew who he was at the beginning. Later, he had to tell his editor. Even the publisher of the paper and his writing partner did not know his true identity until this year, when Mark Felt, who was then second in command at the FBI, came out to tell his story.

Had Felt not told his story, Nixon might have gone along, supporting his “plumbers,” who had pulled dirty tricks against Nixon’s enemies, both perceived and real, for years.

Some look at Felt as a hero. Others, particularly those who served first Nixon and then jail terms, as a traitor to the nation.

Had Watergate happened today, Woodward would probably be sitting in a jail cell for refusing to name Felt as his source.

That is not hyperbole. Witness Judith Miller of the New York Times.

On July 14, 2003, Columnist Robert Novack wrote a piece outing undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame in a bid to discredit her husband, a former ambassador who pointed out some of President Bush’s errors on his contention that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

In his story, Novack quoted “two senior administration officials,” but did not name the officials. It is a crime to blow a spy’s cover.

Novack is not in trouble. Two other reporters are.

Matthew Cooper wrote a story for Time Magazine saying that the government was trying to discredit Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, three days after Novack’s story hit the wires. He also quoted anonymous sources as outing Plame.

Judith Miller, the New York Times writer who now sits in a prison cell for refusing to give up her sources, never wrote a story about either Plame or her husband. She did gather material for a story, however, and the government thinks that she went to the same sources as Novack and Cooper.

Only Miller sits in jail, however.

Why? Prosecutors who seek information on who leaked Plame’s name won’t say why Novack hasn’t had his feet put to the flame. There is speculation, however, that Novack caved in immediately and provided the names. In Cooper’s case, Time Magazine decided to provide the reporter’s notes in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that called on them to do so. Then, the source called Cooper and told him that it was okay to provide his name to investigators.

So, only Miller, who never wrote a story, sits in jail.

Prosecutors say that she is in jail because she is protecting a criminal, the officials who illegally outed Plame.

Miller says that the Constitution guarantees her source anonymity and that, even if the Supreme Court disagrees narrowly, she has an obligation not to out that source.

“What would happen if reporters could no longer provide whistleblowers with a guarantee of anonymity,” a Times spokesperson asked. “Sources would dry up and the public’s right to know would be diminished.”

Miller put it more succinctly.

“If journalists cannot be trusted to keep confidences, then journalism cannot function and there cannot be a free press,” she said from her cell.

She will remain in jail at least until October 28.

“She has the key to her cell,” the judge said. “All she has to do is provide the name of her source.”

The story became even more interesting this week with the revelation that it was White House political honcho Karl Rove that probably leaked the name, giving credibility to the belief that many reporters hold that the White House wanted the leak to discredit Wilson, who wrote a book critical of the president and the war in Iraq.

Newsweek magazine broke a story this week stating that Rove was secretly mentioning Plame to reporters three days before Novack’s story was written.

In fact, Cooper, in an Email turned over to the prosecutors as part of the deal to keep him out of jail, said he had “a brief chat with Rove on ‘double secret background,’ two years ago.”

In a carefully worded statement, Rove’s lawyer told CNN that Rove “did not tell any reporters that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.”

Every reporter has to decide for himself or herself what they would do. Papers such as The Wave, while not involved in global politics or national security issues, often face the same kinds of problems with the use of anonymous sources that are faced by the New York Times and the weekly news magazines.

We use them when we have to use them to tell an important story. We always ask, however, that the informant go on the record.

Sometimes they do. Sometimes, they can’t. That is what journalism is all about.

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