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July 01, 2005

I’m Glad We Have That Cleared Up

Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s editor in chief, said that he concluded after much reflection that, "We are not above the law."

[This as Time Inc. said] that it would provide documents concerning the reporter's confidential sources to a grand jury investigating the disclosure of the identity of a covert C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame.

The magazine's decision to give in to the demands of federal prosecutors followed the Supreme Court's decision on Monday to reject appeals by the agazine and its reporter, Matthew Cooper, as well as a reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller. (NY Times).

While this is clearly the right decision by Time Inc., it is not without consequences.

The ability of the media to use sources that wish to remain anonymous is paramount to the freedom and the capabilities of the press.
I was trained as a journalist and although I have spent most of my career in public relations, I have also been a reporter. Most stories with any bite to them at all rely on background, off the record, and unattributed quotes and information. If sources cannot trust that you will keep their identity hidden, much of this information will dry up.

I also understand the decision by reporters to go to jail rather than reveal confidential sources. Their word is central not only to their ongoing ability to get information from sources, but it is also part of their journalistic soul. To yield would be akin to the abortion protester getting up off the sidewalk and going home when the police arrive and threaten arrest. Their civil disobedience has a purpose beyond the parameters of any one case.

But in matters of life and death and national security, a corporation such as Time Inc. must obey the courts. Appeal it as far as possible, which they did, but when all avenues are blocked, obey the law.

I sympathize with the journalists, but if we don’t have rule of law we lose everything.

As a side note, I believe the whole anonymous source thing is out of control and in many cases has gone from a vital part of reporting to lazy even dishonest reporting. Every source should assume that a reporter will keep his or her confidence, but that in America the law is king and if the courts require a media company to disclose a source, their confidentiality will be forfeited.

Courts should exercise this power with great caution, because anonymity does allow the tongue to way, but no one should be above the law.

Posted by Jim at July 1, 2005 08:21 AM

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