OFF THE RECORD: THE PRESS, THE GOVERNMENT, AND THE WAR OVER ANONYMOUS SOURCES
By Norman Pearlstine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 282 pages, $25
Many years ago, long before he became the editor in chief at Time Inc., Norman Pearlstine wrote an exposé for The Wall Street Journal about mobsters behaving badly in Las Vegas. The story relied in part on an unnamed source, whose confidentiality Mr. Pearlstine has continued to protect for decades. To this day, he still hasn’t given up the true identity of “Michelle the Chip Hustler.”
Karl Rove should be so lucky.
To wit: In the summer of 2005, Mr. Pearlstine famously decided to hand over notes to a grand-jury investigation that identified Mr. Rove as the anonymous government source who had leaked classified information to Time political reporter Matt Cooper. The move came as a major surprise.
For months, representatives of Time Inc., including Mr. Pearlstine, had joined The New York Times in publicly fighting the subpoenas of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Along the way, they had appealed to both the general public and the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the First Amendment guarantees the right of reporters to protect the confidentiality of their sources.
And then one day in June, Mr. Pearlstine did an about-face. What happened?
In his new book, Off the Record, Mr. Pearlstine defends his decision:
“Time Inc., on behalf of itself and Matt Cooper, spent millions of dollars fighting Patrick Fitzgerald in the courts, and we lost every round,” writes Mr. Pearlstine. “When the Supreme Court refused to hear our plea, I folded our hand and turned over our notes to the grand jury.”
At the time, it was a wildly unpopular decision. During the summer of 2005, everywhere you looked in American journalism, some prominent writer, publication or media organization was taking a hearty whack at Norman Pearlstine. David Halberstam, Joe Klein, Carl Bernstein, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The New York Observer—each took turns picking apart his rationale for capitulation.
The San Diego Union-Tribune lampooned Mr. Pearlstine as Time’s “Wimp of the Year.” In Off the Record, Mr. Pearlstine tries his hand at a more nuanced self-portrait.
In general, the genre of aggrieved media players fighting back against their critics is a lamentable one (see Raines, Howell). But to his credit, Mr. Pearlstine keeps the self-righteousness, the braying and the shin-kicking to a minimum. For the most part, he carries out his self-restoration project with dignified restraint.
He tells us that turning over Mr. Cooper’s notes was the hardest decision in his long and varied media career—the highlights of which he recounts in a whirlwind manner. Born in a suburb of Philadelphia to a family of lawyers, Mr. Pearlstine graduated from law school before eventually abandoning the family profession for a long, successful run in journalism. Over the years, he served as the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, the executive editor of Forbes and the founder of SmartMoney. In 1995, he became the fifth editor in chief of Time Inc., charged with overlooking the editorial content of one of the largest magazine companies in the world.
From his perch at the top of Time Inc., Mr. Pearlstine had plenty of opportunities to put his legal training to good use. He devotes a portion of his book to chronicling the impressive array of court-room adversaries that Time Inc. has squared off against over the years. Aggrieved aluminum moguls. Jilted Little League coaches. Rattlesnake-wielding discontents. Ariel Sharon. The Church of Scientology.
And, beginning in May 2004, Patrick Fitzgerald.
Mr. Pearlstine writes that his deliberation about whether to comply with Mr. Fitzgerald’s subpoena requests unfolded over many, many months. There was no eureka moment. Along the way, he weighed the advice of various journalists, a former U.S. attorney and a menagerie of lawyers both inside and outside of Time Warner. He even solicited the opinion of his psychotherapist.
Somewhere along the line, Mr. Pearlstine grew disenchanted with the legal posturing of Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment guru who initially represented Time Inc. and continued to represent Judith Miller and The New York Times throughout the course of Mr. Fitzgerald’s investigation. “I was worried that he was spread thin—distracted by his other cases and his desire to publicize his autobiography, which was set for publication a month before our Supreme Court petition was due,” writes Mr. Pearlstine.
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