Daily Archives: October 1, 2003

Is real journalism a thing of the past ?

I’d like to think not, but these are decidedly discouraging times. And we didn’t come to the pretty pass outlined in this “Slate” sliver from Jack Shafer The Access Trap: How anonymous sources tie reporters in knots overnight.

“The biggest news story in Washington this week is the identity of the two White House leakers who blew the cover of Valerie Plame—a covert CIA employee and wife of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV—by revealing her identity to columnist Robert Novak, who published it in a July 14, 2003, column.

The Novak-Wilson-Plame story is so huge because 1) the leak appears (to some) to be a dirty trick designed to punish Wilson for going public on the July 6 New York Times op-ed page with his version of the Niger yellowcake uranium story; 2) it’s against federal law ($50,000 in fines and 10 years in prison) for a government official who has access to classified information to disclose a covert agent’s identity; 3) it indicates the extent to which the Bush administration will dissemble to sear its version of the war on terror on the public consciousness; and 4) we haven’t had a good scandal joy ride in Washington since Monicagate.

Hold the joy ride, Jack. A law has been broken. A big one. And in the process a major government agency has been rendered Null and Void.

The “outing” of Valerie Plame (and you can’t imagine how annoyed my dear friend Michelangelo Signorile is over the hi-jacking of a term he created) has not only put at risk the lives of every foreign source with whom she has ever had contact, it hangs the CIA itself out to dry.

And that’s only part of the story because, as Shafer points out —

But Novak can’t shed any light on the leakers’ identities, of course, because he promised them anonymity in exchange for the information. Nor can the six unnamed reporters who, according to the Washington Post, were peddled similar information by two White House officials but who never used the information in their journalism. Ambassador Wilson told the Post yesterday that four reporters working for three TV networks told him in July that administration officials had contacted them to plant news stories that would include his wife’s covert identity. One presumes that the pledge of confidentiality binding Novak also gags these reporters, preventing them from pursuing the big story of who leaked, who played the dirty trick, or who may have broken federal law.

So there are Two dirty tricks at play here: the “outing” of Plame and the virtual guarantee that no reporter will blab about the “outers.”

The hard-and-fast rules that govern confidential sourcing leave a half-dozen news organizations in a position where they know the leakers’ identities as institutions but can’t force individual reporters to reveal their names without violating the journalistic taboo of “burning” a confidential source. If the journalists in the know were to surrender the names of their White House sources, they’d be shunned by their peers and (more important) frozen out by future confidential sources because they’re untrustworthy. They might as well move their butts over to the obit desk. (One state court has even found that a confidentiality agreement with a reporter is contractual, enforceable by law.)

In other words they’ll be shunned in the school cafeteria and Sally Quinn won’t invite them to ANY of her parties — oh horror!

It doesn’t occur to Shafer that a call from an anonymous source should serve as a signal to any reporter worth his or her salt that there’s a Much Bigger Story out there that’s gettable if a little bit of time, effort and shoe leather are judiciously expended.

However, that wouldn’t be “professional” according to the “standards” of the Beltway.

But it’s not like Washington journalists like to play “get the leaker” in the first place. They don’t even like to examine the motives of the confidential sources who appear in their own newspapers or the pages of the competition. It’s considered poor form in Washington to uncover another reporter’s confidential sources, but not because it’s bad journalism. Confidential sources are the grease that makes the wheels of Washington journalism turn,

Like “Lube”! Take your legs down from behind your head, Jack.

and anybody who disturbs the cloak of anonymity undermines what 80 percent of the reporters in town do. Because Washington reporters outnumber worthwhile confidential sources by a ratio of 10 to 1 (or greater), confidential sources can usually pick the most advantageous (to them) terms for dispensing information. For that reason alone, most Washington reporters would rather acquire the other guy’s confidential sources than expose them.

In other words they’re all lazy, shiftless motherfuckers worthy of asking one question and one question only:

“Do you want fries with that?”

This may explain why none of the reporters who talked to the White House sources filed the more newsworthy story: namely, that the normally leak-free administration was attempting to put Ambassador Wilson in an unflattering light by connecting his Niger mission in some nepotistic fashion to his wife’s position as a CIA employee, and damage her cover in the process. Any of the reporters could have published a story about how an administration source was talking trash about Wilson without naming Valerie Plame or violating their confidentiality agreements. So, why didn’t they? I can only assume that the reporters calculated that with confidential administration sources being so rare these days, they shouldn’t do anything that would deter a future leak. So, they ignored the tip and declined to expose the leakers’ skulduggery in hopes of getting a different—and perhaps less dicey—story leaked to them later.

Yes, they’ve got to marshall their resources the better to deal with a less important story down the line.

How professional !

The Novak-Wilson-Plame story illustrates in creepy fashion what happens when reporters, especially Washington reporters, become too beholden to their sources. They forget that they’re supposed to answer to their readers, not their sources. And when they’re obsessed with keeping their confidential sources happy, they end up missing the story.

Not just “missing” the story — killing it.

Here’s a tip from a fourth estate operative of over 35 years experience. If someone contacts you with information that he or she wants disclosed without attribution —


This attempted contact means there’s a real story out there that’s “gettable” if you have the guts, wit, patience and shoe leather to do a little goddamned work!

If you go along with them it means that they are the author of the story and you are merely a pencil.

No, less than a pencil. Pencils are sharpened and saved for future use. You’re just an asshole to be fucked and forgotten.

And that’s a cue for a chorus of “But I Can’t Do It Alone” from Chicago .
For any real reporter doing real work requires a real editor to back him up. I’ve known one Truly Great one, plus a bunch of others not really deserving of comment.

Journalism is hard, Barbie. Get used to it.

Or would you perchance prefer a more appropriate position in the wonderful world of “Fast Food” ?