When newsrooms leak

News & Politics

This will go surely go down an a moment of high farce in the entire Plame saga: reporters furious that their confidential conversations have been leaked to other reporters.

First, however, let's give credit where it is due. The leaked conversations from the Washington Post's internal discussion board reveal a genuine and heartening concern among the nation's top journalists about Woodward's ethics and that of their own newspaper. This is the best news we've had in very long time about the national press corps.

Charles Babington: I feel like we're ignoring the 800-pound elephant on our front page: Bob Woodward. Every day, scores of Post reporters press, cajole, badger, demand, implore people to tell us things they might not want to. When they demur, we try to convince them they should talk to the Washington Post even if they talk to no one else. Today we report that our assistant managing editor, and surely our most famous staffer, "declined to elaborate on the statement he released to The Post late yesterday afternoon and publicly last night. He would not answer any questions, including those not governed by his confidentiality agreement with sources." I admire the hell out of Bob, but this looks awful.
Charles Lane: Babington, I second that emotion. If I could interview Bob, my question would be: I teach an ethics in journalism course at Georgetown U. every Thursday. How should I explain all of this to the class when, inevitably, they ask about it tomorrow night?
Robert E. Pierre: Chuck is right. It does look awful and it impacts on the credibility that each of us individually, and collectively, have as we make our case to people about why they should trust us. I certainly understand that national security and the presidency and the Supreme Court are murky topics that sometimes will require us to make deals with people to get information. But I think this whole affair of journalists and politicians using anonymity to trade information and then cast themselves as protectors of the common good stinks. These tradeoffs that we make--arguably to tell what we believe are revelatory stories--are often well beyond the understanding of our readers who go about their lives in worlds in which comments, good and bad, are attached to the names of real people they can go back and question. They can decide a person's credibility for themselves, examine their motives and make an informed decision. When we do that for them, and promise that we will tell them as much as we know, we must, absolutely must, not waiver from that promise. When we do, we all pay the price, not just those people whose names are splashed in the headlines.
Jonathan Yardley: To the matter rightly raised by Chuck Babington: This is the logical and perhaps inevitable outcome when an institution permits an individual to become larger than the institution itself. However able and accomplished the individual -- and I agree that Woodward is both -- the institution pays the cost when he or she is permitted to operate within its purview yet under a different set of rules. There are a few others on the paper about whom the same could be said. Perhaps the current embarrassment (for embarrassment it most certainly is) will provide the occasion for re-examining the star system and its attendant risks. This is a big, influential newspaper, one of perhaps the half-dozen best in the world, but it will never be fully mature until it understands that the institution's interests take priority over any employee's, and until it puts that understanding into practice. Judy Miller was granted star status, and look what happened to her -- and to the Times.
I'm seriously contemplating having Yardley's love-child. But he is sadly distracted by more weighty matters, like having his comments plastered all across the internet. Here's what he posts to discussion board soon after:
Jonathan Yardley: The comment of mine two paragraphs above has been leaked, presumably by someone in the newsroom, to the New York Times. Katharine Seelye called me an hour ago pressing for further comment. I declined, stressing that this is a confidential internal critique written solely for the news staff of TWP and refusing to authorize her to quote from it. She called back half an hour later to say that her editor had told her to go ahead and quote from the comment anyway. I told her I expected her to make plain that this is a confidential internal document and that she is quoting from it over the objections of the person who wrote it. She said she would. We'll see.
I hardly see any point in having critiques and comments if they are to be publicized outside the paper. How can we write candidly when candor merely invites violations of confidentiality? Many readers say they distrust us. Well, now I find myself wondering if we can trust each other.
Ouch! So here's a reporter furious at having his private comments leaked by another reporter to yet another reporter -- only to find his expression of chagrin at the leak leaked once again to the world at large. This lack of respect for confidentiality among reporters is even more amusing in a case that's all about reporters refusing to divulge the details of other more important conversations with administration sources.

Like I said, high farce. [LINK via Eschaton]

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