So now we know for sure. Those "highly placed Bush Administration sources" anonymously quoted over and over again in front-page and cover stories are, in fact, the likes of Karl Rove and Lewis Libby. The Valerie Plame affair has not only outed the chronic propaganda leakers in the Bush Administration; it has also exposed for the public to see the corrupt relationship between the White House and leading members of the national press corps.
Why corrupt? Because one of the first things journalists learn is that their job is to put sources on record, by name. They are warned that sources giving background and off-the-record information may well be floating trial balloons, or worse, pushing propaganda designed to build public support for war or any other part of an administration's agenda. What should we think of reporters who, instead, see their jobs as regularly conveying anonymously the whispers of the people closest to the President of the United States? And how should we judge the news outlets that reward those reporters regularly by placing their "exclusive" stories on their front pages?
The reporters I respect (and such has been my own practice as a reporter) usually grant anonymity only to sources who are taking a personal risk in conveying truth that discomfits people in power. Such is not the case with Judith Miller or Matt Cooper or any of the other reporters who regularly turn to a Rove or a Libby.
What's worse is that Rove and company are notorious liars. I can't conceive of relying regularly on a source like Rove, with his sordid history of smear campaigns and dirty tricks. Yet clearly that is what occurred and is still occurring among members of the Washington press corps. Still, readers might assume that information from Rove would be verified. But with whom? Not with people quoted on the record, but with more anonymous sources. Libby for Rove, perhaps, and Rove for Libby? Do multiple lies add up to truth?
Of course, for readers who still trust the media, this is nothing less than betrayal. Such readers--and their numbers are dwindling--might reasonably assume that the reporter and her editors use only anonymous sources who are highly reliable in the first place. But those readers would be wrong, and many, no doubt, will soon join the ranks of Americans who find Jon Stewart more believable than the New York Times.
A major argument used by supporters of the status quo of White House news coverage is that providing anonymity guarantees access. Access to informed sources is important, but for what purpose? For phony stories about yellowcake in Niger? For tragically wrong stories about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist? Spare us that kind of access and the war it helped foment.
It's no wonder George W. Bush has such contempt for the media. His cronies must laugh regularly about how easily they manipulate reporters. Driven by ego and competitive pressure, they are willing carriers of the Administration's propaganda, blinded by feelings of false power because they are close to the people actually pulling their strings.
Is there an alternative model for news gathering in Washington? Sure, but it's hard for the insiders to even consider that there might be. Writing recently (July 24) in the Washington Post, Mark Feldstein defends the routine granting of anonymity even as he deplores the result. Feldstein, a winner of several Emmy awards, was an investigative correspondent for CNN and a producer for Dateline NBC. "To be sure," he writes "it is better for reporters to disclose even partial and incomplete information than none at all"; and that journalism is, in any event, a rough draft of history that will be corrected by historians. That is small comfort when the stakes are immediate war and death, and when the "information" is actually lies.
As the New York Times said in a recent editorial (July 19) defending Judith Miller, if Rove and other officials are "concerned about getting out the truth, all they would need to do would be to stand up in public and tell it." That is exactly right. What a different world it would be, right now, if most reporters for mainstream media refused the corrupt bargain and were willing to write stories spun by the Administration only if the sources were on the record and accountable. Shouldn't that be the standard practice, with rare exceptions, instead of the opposite? As Americans consider what is happening in Iraq and at home, they keep asking why no one is held accountable, why no one seems to be responsible. A major reason is the habitual granting of anonymity to the executive branch by the Washington press corps.
We need a national shield law, but not to protect promises of confidentiality to some of the most powerful people In the world. We need it to protect reporters who place their jobs on the line--and frequently lose them--when they take the risk of exposing abuses of power by those inside government and without.
No, the first lesson of the Valerie Plame affair should not be about how better to protect reporters like Judith Miller, although reporters clearly need better protection. Instead, let's first make it an occasion for soul-searching about how the mainstream media covers the President of the United States.
Frances Cerra Whittelsey