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Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War over Anonymous Sources
By Norman Pearlstine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
282 pages; $25
Whenever as an editor I was confronted by a reporter who refused to share with me the identity of a confidential source making a potentially problematic claim, I made it clear that the story wouldn't run under those conditions.
I'd like to say this was all due to my high journalistic standards, and indeed I more than once cited the precedent of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sharing the identity of fabled Watergate source "Deep Throat" with their Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee. A more honest admission is that I was merely observing the time-honored Israeli practice of kisui tahat - covering my tuches - since the latter was equally on the line if the source's information later turned out to be inaccurate.
Although Norman Pearlstine now agrees with me, he would have saved himself a lot of grief had he hewed to that principle during the political-journalistic affair known as Plamegate. In Off the Record, the former editor-in-chief of Time Inc. gives his version of his much-criticized role in that brouhaha, and more broadly examines some of the serious questions it raised about the use (and abuse) of anonymous sources in news reporting. The result is a book that should strongly interest political junkies, First Amendment lawyers and scholars, and members of the increasing beleaguered journalistic community.
The backdrop to Plamegate was the furious debate over the invasion of Iraq. The trigger was statements made in the spring of 2003 by Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat sent by the CIA to examine reports of an attempt by Saddam Hussein's government to buy high-grade uranium from Niger. Wilson charged that the Bush administration had not only ignored his findings that this story was unfounded, but even had the president claim otherwise in a State of the Union address.
Furious White House officials then sought to discredit Wilson by deliberately leaking to selected journalists the fact that his wife was a covert CIA agent named Valerie Plame, and it was she who had improperly lobbied for her husband to be given this sensitive mission.
The blowing of Plame's cover, first done publicly by columnist Robert Novak, was a possible crime. Faced with a growing public backlash, the White House then turned around and appointed a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, to locate the source of the leaks and determine if any laws were broken.
Two of the journalists Fitzgerald found had been recipients of the leak were New York Times security reporter Judith Miller and Time political correspondent Matthew Cooper. It was as Cooper's then-boss that Pearlstine was brought into the affair. A determined Fitzgerald demanded that Wilson and Cooper name (or turn over material that would reveal) their sources on Plame's outing or face possible imprisonment. Both refused, initially with full backing of their employers, who sought legal help from Floyd Abrams, the renowned lawyer who had emerged as a legal champion of press freedoms in the fabled "Pentagon Papers" case of the 1970s.
As the weeks went by and the courts upheld Fitzgerald's demands, Pearlstine began to have his doubts, especially regarding the uncompromising stances of Abrams and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, who was still smarting from the fall-out of the Jayson Blair exposÃ©.
"I worried," writes Pearlstine, "that Sulzberger, consciously or unconsciously, saw strident, uncompromising defiance of the courts as a way to redeem his and his paper's reputations, regaining the glory days of the Pentagon Papers with Abrams."
Pearlstine, a lawyer by training, knew that Fitzgerald had legal precedent on his side thanks to Branzburg vs Hayes, a landmark Supreme Court decision that held that journalists cannot conceal the identity of sources from a grand jury investigation. When it became clear there was no legal redress to stop the prosecutor, Pearlstine instructed Cooper to give up his source - White House adviser Karl Rove - rather than face jail-time.
Pearlstine faced a firestorm of criticism from his media peers for violating the core journalistic principle that a reporter never gives up his confidential sources. He was especially skewered in comparison to the willingness of the Times to stand by Miller as she spent nearly three months in prison before her own source - vice presidential aide Lewis Libby - finally gave his permission to be named to Fitzgerald (who later won a conviction against him for lying under oath).
In Off The Record, Pearlstine offers a rationale for his decision to give up Rove, a broader examination of the journalistic issues raised by Plamegate and no small of amount of payback to his detractors (the latter especially directed at the Times, which not surprisingly recently reviewed this book by concluding "Pearlstine's misfortune is that he ended up showing a white flag"). In this case, he draws a fine distinction - perhaps too fine - between an "anonymous" and a "confidential" source, arguing that Rove was only the former (whether he and Libby deserved the confidentiality that allowed them to besmirch Wilson and sabotage Plame's career is itself questionable).
Pearlstine notes that Miller, originally hailed as a media martyr for sitting behind bars to protect her source, was later pilloried for "helping the White House propaganda machine sell the war in Iraq" and forced from the Times. Cooper, Pearlstine writes of his own reporter, "was wrong in the ways he dealt with his sources. None of his editors, including this one, provided adequate guidance." No argument here.
More controversially, Pearlstine argues for a federal shield law to protect reporters and their confidential sources, unless an imminent threat to national security is involved. Sounds logical - until you consider some of the recent stories broken by The New York Times about the Bush administration's efforts to track terrorist phone calls and funds, or The Washington Post exposÃ© of foreign-based CIA prisons. I doubt very much that either the media or the government want to see those kinds of cases argued before the courts.
But Pearlstine is surely also right in pointing out that the use of anonymous sourcing has gotten way out of control in even the best mainstream media. While still a necessary tool for any real investigative journalism, many reporters and editors - especially in Israel, as I can unfortunately attest - have become far too willing to bestow anonymity on their sources, especially government officials (including official spokespeople) who should be pressed far more to go on the record, rather than being allowed to hide in the plain sight of print.
"We must also be more honest with our sources, and we must be vigilant to make sure our sources are honest with us," Pearlstine understandably writes. "Reporters must explain that they cannot promise more than the law allows, and they shouldn't make promises that are against the public interest. Journalists aren't above the law, and we have to stop acting as though we are."
Pearlstine also rightly notes that "for those in the [Bush] administration, battles with journalists were part of a broader effort to control leaks and to corral the press, which it had come to see as a part of the enemy forces it had to fight."
In this regard he prominently mentions the Justice Department's current effort to convict two researchers of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, on charges of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified information about national security; "Rosen and Weissman, private citizens, were charged with communicating information about national defense 'to any persons not entitled to receive it' - precisely what government sources do in Washington every day."
The AIPAC trial is scheduled to get under way in a few months. Perhaps because the prosecutorial targets this time are lobbyists rather than journalists, this case hasn't gotten nearly the press that Plamegate did.
I strongly advise my media colleagues in the US to devote more attention, raise more questions and express greater objection to what increasingly seems to be a case of prosecutorial excess in using AIPAC staffers as sacrificial lambs in the Bush administration's crusade against governmental leaks.
If not, many more journalists may soon find themselves not just acting as if they are above the law - but working outside of it.
The writer is the former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.