Backing Away From Journalism
July 04, 2005
So now Time has joined Newsweek in backing away from controversy that puts it at odds with the Government. In Newsweek's case, it was the quick capitulation to Administration pressure to retract a story of Koran desecration by U.S. troops. Time's case is different: handing over the notes taken by reporter Matt Cooper to a court that held Cooper in contempt for not revealing a source.
It may be the best immediate result for Cooper--a funny and talented guy who held to principle under pressure and now, through the intervention of his editors, may be off the hook (although prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is still calling for Cooper's head).
But in the long term, for journalists and the public, it's a lousy precedent. What new Deep Throat will come forward knowing that reporters cannot credibly guarantee the anonymity of a source?
No one who cares about journalism's role in a democracy can applaud Time's decision. And essentially it is not a journalistic but a business decision anyway. It is the risk-averse strategy of a corporation that sees a possible dent in profits from a legal battle, not the principled stand of editors who believe in getting the news, that made Time decide to squeal.
The case itself, the unmasking of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame by an anonymous Administration official, is complex. Plame was revealed by Robert Novak, in what many saw as a deliberate act of vengeance against her husband, Joseph Wilson, who went public with the inside story of the Administration's distortion of Iraq's nuclear weapons capability before the war. Who told Novak? What did Novak tell prosecutors in the case, and why isn't he facing jail time like Matt Cooper and The New York Times's Judith Miller? Will this case ultimately result in the downfall of any Bush Administration official?
All of that drama will be interesting to watch.
But for now, it seems that Time, like Newsweek, is making the calculation that the kind of trouble stirred up by digging up stories that anger the powerful is just not worthwhile.
So much for the Fourth Estate.