Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The press? self-inflicted black eyes


To mangle a lyrical Churchillian turn of phrase, never have so few done so much to bring shame to so many.

From my days as a novice correspondent in the Korean War until now more than a half century later, I can?t recall--as reporter, as news executive or as publisher--print media being in such disrepute on so many grounds, and not just with readers, but also with journalists who expect better.

First, a string of reporters was caught fabricating stories. As if scandal begets scandal, circulation managers at large and small newspapers then were caught spiking sales numbers, like Enron spiked profits.

Malefactors blamed their dereliction on a corporate culture?s hunger for profits that encourages unethical practices to meet unreasonable competitive goals. More plausible reason: People without principle at work.

Now the spotlight is on reporters refusing to reveal a White House source who exposed the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of Am-bassador Joseph Wilson, in what?s regarded as vindictiveness for Wilson?s criticism of President Bush claiming that Iraq sought nuclear materials in Africa.

A Time magazine reporter was ordered jailed for refusing to name the source, and the magazine ordered to pay $1,000-a-day until the source is identified. The order is on appeal.

Reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post, plus syndicated conservative columnist-CNN commentator Robert Novak, also plan to clam up. Other Washington reporters declined the offer to expose Plame?s name.

Meantime, Vice President Cheney?s chief of staff, ?Scooter? Libby, is fingered in speculation as the source.

The reporters claim privilege in protecting their source. Without confi-dentiality, they insist journalists can?t expose wrongdoing.

Nonsense. They weren?t exposing wrongdoing. They were blatantly used, as Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz said Sunday on CNN?s ?Reliable Sources,? to ?blacken? the name of Plame and her hus-band for political revenge.

Reporters and their source also exposed a CIA agent, which investigators say is a federal crime.

Acting as patsies in political revenge is hardly a noble exercise for the public good.

I know of no First Amendment interpretation exempting reporters from criminal laws and complicity in cheap political theater to destroy an intelli-gence agent?s cover. Nor is there any code requiring journalists to protect sources who cynically use reporters as couriers for scurrilous ends.

Reporters who?ve been contemptuously used owe it to the public and their calling to unmask the source, not provide cover. This behavior occurs even as some newspapers fend off charges they submit to political bullying by the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, if reporters choose jail as the price for their melodramatic protection of a cynical political schemer, so be it.

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