China's Leadership Cadre
Over at My Journalism Class Weblog

Covering the Economy: Budget: What Do You Do When Officials Lie?

What can a working journalist do when official sources and documents tell lies? That was, we all thought on Wednesday, a difficult part of what those journalists covering the budget this year had to do.

We have this same question coming up in another context: Daniel Froomkin writes:

The Captive President: Media Matters, the liberal media watchdog Web site, raises an interesting point about Time Magazine's coverage of the Valerie Plame affair. Back in this October 2003 story, the magazine reported: "White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are 'ridiculous.' Says McClellan: 'There is simply no truth to that suggestion.'" It is now clear that several reporters and editors at Time knew very well that McClellan's statement was false.... Is there any excuse for a news organization to print a statement that they know is untrue, without at least trying to clue their readers into the truth? That seems to defeat the central purpose of journalism. So what should Time have done?...

Here's Time reporter Michael Duffy's paragraph in context:

[T]he Democrats saw an opening.... Democrats immediately raised a public alarm: How could Justice credibly investigate so secretive an Administration, especially when the investigators are led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose former paid political consultant Karl Rove was initially accused by Wilson of being the man behind the leak?.... White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are "ridiculous." Says McClellan: "There is simply no truth to that suggestion." Recalling the torture inflicted on Bush's predecessor by a squad of special prosecutors, congressional Democrats demanded that a special counsel be appointed in this case. By Wednesday some had christened the scandal Intimigate and were trying to link it to every political issue in sight...

So I called Michael Duffy, who strongly disagrees. He thinks that it would have been unprofessional of him to send any signal in that story that McClellan's statements were false. He had a duty to his readers. He had a duty to Time's confidential sources to protect their identity. And the duty to the sources trumps. Sending a signal that Time knew that McClellan was wrong when he said that Rove was involved--"remember, he still has not been charged," Duffy said--would have revealed that Rove was one of Time's confidential sources.

There is, I think, a certain tension and inconsistency in Duffy's position. On the one hand, Duffy points to all the pictures of Karl Rove in the issue of Time and talks about how Rove's involvement was an open secret, talks about how everyone knows how limited is the truth value of statements from the White House podium. "This wasn't the first story about Plame we had written." He is sure that Time's readers were definitely not misled by McClellan's denials.

But if that is so, how can Time be protecting Rove's confidential status>

On the other hand, Duffy says that Time will go all the way up to the Supreme Court, at great expense, to protect the confidentiality of its sources.

But if that is so, how can Time justify all the big pictures of Karl Rove that Duffy implies--"look at the images in that issue? What's on the spread?"--said nudge nudge, wink wink, we all know that most of what Scott McClellan says is so is not in fact so?

Not that it's bad that there's a certain tension and inconsistency in Michael Duffy's position. There is extraordinary tension in Duffy's situation. I think that the tension should be diminished by a greater willingness to blow sources sky-high when the alternative is to mislead your readers and the stakes get high enough. Source confidentiality is a tool to be used to better inform your readers, not a value in itself that conflicts with it.

Michael Duffy thinks not.

I suspect that the most important element of this mishegass is that Time believes that its readers know more of the "open secrets" of the Washington insider political journalistic community than they (or, indeed, I) in fact do.