Monday, August 09, 2004

protecting sources

Sure would like to see some honest discussion of the merits of reporters protecting their sources (AP via Seattle P-I).

Think of it this way, fellow lefties. Say the issue involved leaking classified information to uncover high-level sanctioning of torture at Abu Ghraib. Would we want a reporter giving up his or her source, resulting in prosecution of that source for leaking classified information?

I included some disparities between the Plame case and my hypothetical to raise some pertinent points. Is a reporter's right to protect a source--which of course has always been up in the air--an absolute right? A non-existent right? A subjective right depending on circumstances? If subjective, what is the criteria?

Does the intent behind the leak matter? In Plame, the reason was political payback and maneuvering. In my hypothetical, the reason would be to uncover a crime, in effect an act of whistleblowing.

Or maybe it's the outcome of the leak that matters. In Plame, the cover of a possibly valuable asset and her associates was blown (regardless of un-informed speculations on the right, no one except the CIA and Plame herself really knows the true impact of the outing). In my hypothetical, the result, in most people's eyes, would be the uncovering of a crime and exposure of criminals--although some would see the outcome as a compromising of an ugly but necessary operation.

These two examples are obviously worlds apart. But if our acceptance of the right to protect a source is subjective, who decides? In reality, it seems that subjectiveness has little to do with fact and everything to do with which side of the political spectrum you fall into.

And think about this. If reporters know that their choices on protecting sources will be subject to hindsight judgment, using information the reporter likely didn't have access to at the time, what impact will this have on their choices to report the story or not? More important, what impact will it have on potential leakers?

On the other hand, what responsibility does the reporter have to make judgments about intent and ramifications. Isn't there an obvious world of difference between the intent behind exposing a crime and scoring political points? And what about Time's Matthew Cooper, found today in contempt for refusing to testify? He chose not to report the leaked information, for whatever reason. What right or responsibility does he have with regard to a source whose information he obviously found unnewsworthy?