Journalism On Trial Along With Scooter

The government put I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s lackey/chief of staff, on trial, but it’s the media that has been hit with a guilty verdict. Scooter is accused of obstructing justice and telling fibs to a federal grand jury in the seemingly endless Joe Wilson–Valerie Plame affair, but what caught a wider public’s attention are the glimpses of how Washington journalists go about their daily business.

The closeness between politicians and the media seems to have come as a surprise to people who thought the two were, if not adversarial, at least at arm’s length. The relaxed, we’re-all-on-the-same-Washington-team modus vivendi is personified in Tim Russert of NBC. In the course of the trial, Mr. Russert let it out that he treats all his conversations with government officials as not-for-attribution backgrounders.

By according news sources anonymity, you get information that you otherwise would never have known about, or so the argument runs—but if you look over Mr. Russert’s career, you will see that he has never broken a big story. And Mr. Russert is hardly the only one in the Washington press pack who hides the names of people supplying news tips.

If it were not for the practice of keeping these names from the public, Mr. Libby would not have been put on trial. Then–Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the first person to leak the fact that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked for the C.I.A. He leaked it to Robert Novak, who confirmed the fact with Karl Rove, George Bush’s evil genius in residence. The leaking was engineered as part of a scurvy little plot to discredit Mr. Wilson, but none of this would have happened had Mr. Novak not hidden the names of Mr. Armitage and Mr. Rove.

This was in line with a longstanding practice of cooperating with government officials who want to attack people without letting anyone know who’s doing the attacking. It had already been going on years ago when I served my time as a Washington Post reporter, but both then and now, the promise of confidentiality results in more mischief than it does news.

A journalist who knows the trade will grant confidentiality to a news source about as often as a policeman draws his gun in the line of duty: It should be a rare and exceptional event.

Most news sources are dying to tell you whatever it is that they’re peddling. In most instances, if a reporter explains that he or she doesn’t grant anonymity, the source will tell you anyway—and at least half the time, what they tell you is crap.

It’s true in this case that, had Mr. Armitage and Mr. Rove known that their names would be attached to the story, they wouldn’t have said anything. But the revelation that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked for the C.I.A. wasn’t news; the real news here was that the White House was out to destroy Mr. Wilson, a State Department employee, by suggesting his wife had gotten him a plush assignment abroad. That was the only piece of real news, and it went unreported because of the promise of confidentiality.

By promising everybody and his brother confidentiality, media people have made it more difficult to defend reporters threatened with legal sanctions for refusing to divulge the name of a source. Judy Miller, the ex–New York Times reporter who grew famous printing anonymous cock-and-bull stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, went to jail for months because she refused tell a federal prosecutor that Mr. Libby had unloaded this Wilson-Plame junk on her.

American journalists have been pining for some kind of a federal shield law, but they have never been able to get Congress to see it their way. The Justice Department hates the idea—and, given the low esteem our calling has with the public in general, the chances of getting some kind of protection against bullying U.S. Attorneys is slight. It is made yet slighter by reporters promiscuously promising confidentiality to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

The anonymity game turned comedic when the Army’s propaganda division called a press conference in Baghdad to reveal to the world the actual, real, genuine physical evidence that the Shiite Iranians were, for undisclosed reasons, supplying their Sunni Iraqi enemies with advanced munitions with which to attack Americans. This nonsense, which is not even new nonsense, was delivered—you guessed it—by three anonymous intelligence analysts. Under the rules of the conference, no recording devices were permitted. One wonders if the analysts appeared wearing ski masks.

The reporters should have walked out on such a press conference before it began, and doubtless some of them would have were it not for the fear that their editors, sitting happily behind their desks thousands of miles away from the shooting, would have rebuked them for being scooped on what was self-evidently spurious trash.

Happily, however, exceptions to these observations exist. We have, among others, Seymour Hersh and the McClatchy (formerly Knight-Ridder) newspaper chain, which for the past five years, while others were playing the Washington game, went ahead—unflummoxed and unflimflammed—and got the job done well. Most recently, as The New York Times, our most influential newspaper, was once again in free-fall down Gullibility Gulch, McClatchy readers were being forewarned that the swelling government-sponsored noise about Iranian supplies of improvised explosive devices was shaky and unsubstantiated.

Only so much of the blame can be assigned to reporters. The reporters have bosses who can, if they wish, tell their reporters that they are not to promise anonymity to anyone without first clearing it with their editors. Of course, the bosses could do a lot of things. They could stop assigning reporters to the White House, where they do nothing but waste their days in the pressroom, the journalistic equivalent of being locked up in Guantánamo.

Next to show business, no industry is so addicted to awards than journalism. Yet more are needed—anti-Pulitzers awarded annually to individuals and media organizations for such categories as Most Compliant, Laziest, Most Arrogant, Most Self-Satisfied, Most Inaccurate, and Most Irresponsible. If you have suggestions for other categories, please e-mail them immediately.