An Above-the-law Media Mindset

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - July 21, 2005
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The recent self-outing by W. Mark Felt as “Deep Throat,” the secret source used by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein to crucify Richard Nixon, aka the Watergate scandal, reveals a sad and sleazy sidebar.

Felt was No. 2 in the FBI and was apparently passed over for the promotion to the top spot he thought he deserved, hence his willingness to rat on his president, whom he had sworn under oath to support. Although Nixon’s duplicity was ultimately undeniable, it was minor in the big scheme of the times. Nevertheless, the scandal preoccupied — disproportionally to its actual gravity — the media, the president, his administration, the government and the entire country at a critical time in our history. The North Vietnamese cunningly used the distraction to re-invade South Vietnam, and Congress used it to shamefully renege on the promised support of the South Vietnamese. And the next time we looked, South Vietnam was gone! There were obviously other factors too, but the cause and effect is hard to deny.

Sadder still, W. Mark Felt is now hailed as a celebrity with his (and his doting daughter’s) eye on a six-figure book. Instead he should be prosecuted for leaking confidential information he could have known only through his privileged position.

Thus far, as a journalist I suppose I haven’t really “arrived” yet, having never had my own personal “Deep Throat” source. But then I never expect to. Contrary to a recent Advertiser editorial and an accompanying opinion column by David Shapiro, I believe the use of “confidential” or “anonymous” sources more likely sullies the profession and further undermines the credibility of the media in the eyes of the public.

I mentioned prosecution as it should apply to Felt, and it is the issue of prosecution to which the editorial refers in regard to the two reporters — Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times — who were facing indictment for refusing to divulge their sources on an alleged CIA operative after promising confidentiality. The editor asserts they should be shielded” from having to do so, and also from prosecution. It is particularly unsettling that (Time) capitulated to investigators and turned over notes, e-mails and other materials.”

Unsettling? To have obeyed the law?

“What we are seeing here is the court using its power to coerce reporters into cooperating with a law investigation. This is a terrible precedent.”

A terrible precedent — that reporters would be made to obey the law? Talk about a myopic sense of being above the law!

I have a great deal of professional respect for Shapiro, and even agree with him sometimes. But not on this one. He says, “Time’s unprecedented capitulation will embolden attorneys across the country to pressure news reporters to tattle on their sources, undermining the precept of a free press.”

But he apparently thinks it’s OK for a confidential source to “tattle” on their boss — or whomever — if it provides the dirt the reporter is seeking. And by the way, having a confidential source has nothing to do with “the precept of a free press.” In fact, when a reporter withholds information, it is a less “free” and open press.

Shapiro adds, “If whistleblowers believe that by talking to reporters they’re effectively outing themselves they’ll keep silent.” On the contrary, Linda Tripp was the “mother of all whistle-blowers” and reporting of the Lewinsky escapade based upon her testimony had more credibility because she did not demand confidentiality. She at least was up front with her convictions.

There seems to be a popular misconception in the mainstream media that the U.S. Constitution appoints editors and reporters as the “watchdogs” over the government, and that this justifies a protected covenant with secret sources, even in cases involving national security in wartime. A “confidential,” “anonymous,” “unidentified” or “secret” source, in this context, says to me the source’s motives are suspect, and the reporter has something to hide. It’s sneaky.

It’s no wonder the media rate lower and lower on the credibility scale with thinking Americans.

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