Jonathan Chait on Global-Warming Deniers
More Journamalism From David Broder (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?)

Journamalism from Max Frankel (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?)

Max Frankel writes that it was New York Times reporter Judy Miller's laziness that kept Scooter Libby's leaks from the National Intelligence Estimate from being a good thing for the country:

I. Lewis Libby Trial - The Washington Back Channel - Max Frankel - New York Times: On Tuesday, July 8, in what his normally detailed calendar listed only as a "private meeting," Libby... brought [Judy Miller] selected excerpts from a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.).... The editor in me cringed at [Miller's] justification for her not writing anything.... She could have been the first to recognize... [the] bitter feud... [between] Cheney... [and] Tenet.... By following the trail of Libby's leak back to C.I.A. informants, she could have produced a pretty good yarn...

Most reporters do not just lazily regurgitate such leaks [as Libby gave to Miller]; they use them as wedges to pry out other secrets.... A few more questions following Libby's leak from the N.I.E. would have exposed it as... deeply flawed... thrown together in three weeks... because Senate Democrats refused to authorize the Iraq war without evidence of W.M.D.[s].... By mid-2003, intelligence experts were available to denounce the document as wrong on every important count, the worst N.I.E. ever produced and one obviously tailored to support a policy decision already made...

But most reporters to whom people like Scooter Libby leak do lazily regurgitate such leaks, and they certainly do not use them to pry out other secrets. If Scooter Libby had thought there was any chance that Judy Miller would have used his leak of the N.I.E. to expose it as deeply flawed, Scooter Libby would have kept his mouth shut. Only confidence that the reporter will be a complaisant tool of the source's purposes induces the leak in the first place.

Reportorial laziness on the part of Judy Miller has nothing to do with it. Reportorial ethics has everything to do with it. Do reporters view their primary task as helping their sources to misinform the public? Or do reporters view their primary task as informing citizens? That's the question that Max Frankel has to pretend to be a naive simpleton in order not to ask. Yet that's the question he should be asking.

How did the New York Times come to employ somebody in whom Scooter Libby could have such confidence? And Scooter Libby did have enormous confidence in Judy Miller, enough confidence to attempt to suborn perjury by telling her that the two of them would stand or fall together:

Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them...

It is only Max Frankel's pretense that he is a naive simpleton that allows him to steer his way to his desired conclusion:

The system is sloppy and breeds confusion.... there are and always have been both good and bad leaks, true and illuminating betrayals of secrets as well as false and conniving ones.... Is there a reliable way to distinguish among the many varieties of that genus peculiarly indigenous to Washington, the leaker? The answer, of course, is that there are no neat lines of distinction....

So was Libby’s prosecution worth a four-year judicial and journalistic circus?... The damage to newsgathering, I believe, has been significant.... [R]eporters and less-wealthy media outlets will surrender to the subpoenas and jail threats.... It may sound cynical to conclude that tolerating abusive leaks by government is the price that society has to pay for the benefit of receiving essential leaks about government....

Prosecutors of the realm, let this back-alley market flourish. Attorneys general and others armed with subpoena power, please leave well enough alone. Back off. Butt out.

A more honest commentator than Frankel would have written differently: would have written that the long-run survival of journalistic legal privileges depends on the existence of a community of journalists that policies itself, and that rewards journalists who inform the public and punishes those who kneel to their political masters. Frankel had a chance to engage in this task of self-policing this morning. He failed to do it.