Monday, June 06, 2005


June 6, 2005

So W. Mark Felt was back in the news this week.

It had been a long hiatus for “the man they used to call Deep Throat,” and his re-entry into the public domain as a half lucid and apparently broke old man did little to recall the vengeful/righteous character that helped reporters Woodward and Bernstein torpedo the last truly inept presidential administration. Spurred in 1972 by the news that a Nixon flunky had surpassed him as the heir to J. Edgar Hoover’s purple robe (and panties), Felt called on his ambitious pal at the Washington Post and established himself as the most influential “unnamed source” in American political history.

But he also helped to set off an ugly chain reaction across the world of modern news reporting. By the time Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman released their stylized 1976 version of “Woodstein’s” travails, campus’s would-be stars and partisans had found a new means to an old end.

Almost 30 years later, society regards most journalists with a disdain once reserved for lawyers or street hustlers. The daily scandal as touted by media ranging from major newsmagazines to Undercover Joe on the Channel 11 Nightly News has cheapened even the most exhaustively reported story. The dire result, as Jon Stewart pointed out on his Daily Show, is not that the media has lost its luster, though it has, it’s that even the truth now lacks credibility.

And this is bad news for journalists who want to bust balls in Washington.

Laws, even those set into stone centuries ago, do not exist in a vacuum. As much as the judiciary is supposed operate outside of public opinion, it is an organic body and responds to its environment. So when two reporters from “respected” publications like the New York Times and Time magazine are threatened with jail time for refusing to divulge their sources, the lack of public concern should not be surprising. And it’s not because people don’t understand the First Amendment, they just happen to view it in a similar context to “the Fifth”; a necessary, but thoroughly unconvincing means of defense.

Journalists Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper, of the Times and Time, respectively, have been ordered by ascending levels of the judiciary to reveal the White House source that criminally disclosed the name of a covert CIA operative. Now, the subservient hack who actually slithered his way to the phone and said the words “Valerie” and “Plame” to the reporters seems to be the only real criminal (in the going-to-jail sense) here, but his identity is being protected by the reporters’ semi-integrity; a qualification necessary when you consider the track-record of high-end media. Thus, a hungry Law must eat, and Proud Journalists are featured on today’s menu.

Cooper and Miller will soon argue to more judges-- and eventually in the books they write after leaving prison (unless Son of Sam laws apply?)-- that being forced to reveal their source will discourage future sources from coming forward, and thus impugn upon First Amendment rights. This may be entirely accurate, and in an America where Earl Warren is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court this case probably never unfolds the way it has, but the last thing the public perceives these days is an infringement on free speech. How do we know this? Because almost everyone who shares that opinion is inclined to express it on their personal web log.

But more of a problem for Miller and Cooper is the fact that the grassroots people that should be chaining themselves to Robert Novak’s hooves in the reporters’ defense-- like say, journalism students-- can’t quite swallow, with an as yet un-prostituted soul, the whole of their story. Miller and Cooper are not protecting an otherwise powerless whistleblower who, through an act of personal courage, is looking to expose government corruption. The way this sad story plays out, they are simply protecting their careers, and a partisan brat whose vile existence is validated only by a role in the beltway drama known as “a source in the White House…”

When the three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision that prosecutors were acting lawfully to “compel” Miller and Cooper to reveal their source, New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. issued a statement condemning the decision.

“"We are deeply dismayed at the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to affirm holding Judith Miller in contempt, and at what it means for the American public's right to know,” he said, adding that “The protection of confidential sources was critically important to many groundbreaking stories, such as Watergate, the health-threatening practices of the tobacco industry and police corruption…”

It is a legally and historically sound argument that Sulzberger makes, but his words are again more evidence of the disconnect between Big Media and the public it swears by defending. In the wake of Watergate the profession of journalism was put on a pedestal and its “star reporters” were elevated to place of American Heroes. But things have changed in the past three decades, and in a postmodern society that is as fragmented as ever before, there is no place for the lone defender of the good.


Blogger Andrew said...

So by reading this and commenting on it, am I, in fact, traveling into the past?

11:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home