Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Privacy No More

These are ugly days to be a reporter. I’m not talking about the public’s general disdain for the press. I can live with complaints about the poor quality of news reporting, or a perceived bias. People have been grumbling about those issues for decades. I’m talking about the government’s concerted attacks against the way reporters gather news.

It’s not always easy to get someone to talk to the press. When the stakes are high – when there’s corruption or deceit involved –a reporter sometimes has to offer a source anonymity. Imagine the Watergate story without Deep Throat. His information was critical in exposing the dirty tricks of the Nixon administration. And for 30 years Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have never revealed his name, although guessing at his identity is one of the country’s favorite parlor games.

The press has never had the legal right to refuse to name sources when asked by a grand jury. The Supreme Court decided that in 1972. But now the government is coming down hard on two prominent reporters, Judith Miller of the New York Times, and Matt Cooper of Time, and threatening them with 18 months in jail unless they reveal who talked to them regarding the case of Valerie Plame. She’s the covert CIA agent who was named in a column by conservative Robert Novak, apparently in retaliation for her husband’s criticism of the Bush administration.

This case is complicated. The Columbia Journalism Review has an excellent explanation of why this matters and why it may change news gathering significantly. The article is by Douglas McCollum.

If you live in the Bay Area, you can hear Judith Miller discuss her situation on March 17. She will be interviewed by the tenacious investigative reporter Lowell Bergman, who is also a professor at the UC School of Journalism. Tickets for the event at Wheeler Auditorium at UC Berkeley go on sale March 3. This should be a lively and illuminating event.

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