Sunday, October 16, 2005

"Miss Run Amok"

Finally, we are hearing from New York Times reporter Judith Miller on her involvement with the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
In untangling this case, it is useful to keep in mind that reporters do not operate in a vacuum.
The First Amendment does not guarantee access to the pages of the
New York Times. Nor does it give reporters the right to protect their sources from prosecutors and judges.
A byline on the front page of the
NYT is provided by the editors and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. as part of an employment contract. In return, the editors and publisher have an obligation to protect the paper's integrity and reputation that have been built up over more than a century. Today's story in the Times describes a paper that had ceded much of its oversight to a strong-willed reporter:
Interviews show that the paper's leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control.
"This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk," Mr. Sulzberger said.
No, Mr. Sulzberger, there were many others besides Judith Miller who were at risk: you and your paper's reputation not the least. Even in an age of electronic journalism, the Times enjoys an authority that in the end is built or lost based on the conduct of the paper's reporters, editors and publisher. Miller made free use of the paper's reputational capital:
In the year after [Miller's previous editor Stephen] Engelberg left the paper in 2002, though, Ms. Miller operated with a degree of autonomy rare at The Times.
Douglas Frantz, who succeeded Mr. Engelberg as the investigative editor, said that Ms. Miller once called herself "Miss Run Amok."
"I said, 'What does that mean?' " said Mr. Frantz, who was recently appointed managing editor at The Los Angeles Times. "And she said, 'I can do whatever I want.' "
Ms. Miller said she remembered the remark only vaguely but must have meant it as a joke, adding, "I have strong elbows, but I'm not a dope."
The confidentiality of reporters' sources is not protected by the First Amendment, even though many would wish it were so. Instead, this confidentiality is protected by a common understanding of the value of access to information that would otherwise be kept from the public. To the extent that confidentiality is used by those in power to cover their tracks, public support for reporters and their sources is likely to suffer. We should not forget that it was Joseph Wilson who spoke up and that Valerie Plame's name was revealed as an act of official retribution.
Judith Miller's byline was used to report the government's version of why we should go to war with Iraq, and her silence was used to keep us from knowing who in our government had sought retribution against an informed critic. She can cite the principles of a free press and protecting the confidentiality of her sources, but her conduct has served the government's desire to control information more than the public's need to know.


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