The media see Miller as a martyr, but do you?

Thirty years ago, with millions of Americans watching, a TV journalist at Minneapolis station WJM named Mary Richards went to jail rather than reveal the identity of a confidential tipster. That Emmy-winning episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" helped explain the concept of anonymous sources to a good chunk of the country and probably created a reservoir of viewer sympathy for the spunky sitcom protagonist.
Judy Miller of the New York Times, put behind bars for refusing to disclose her confidential source in the Valerie Plame investigation, may not fare quite as well in the court of public opinion. (The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a staunch advocate for journalists' rights, is keeping a running Miller countdown clock, ticking off the length of her incarceration. As I write this, she has been behind bars for 1 day, 21 hours, 5 minutes and and 29 seconds.)
This situation defies rational explanation and raises far more questions than it answers. In an attempt to find out who leaked the identity of CIA officer Plame -- perhaps in retribution for a New York Times column by her husband that was critical of George Bush's handling of Iraq -- a zealous prosecutor and determined judge have turned Miller's loyalty to her source into a jailing offense. But Miller never wrote about Plame. And the man who revealed her identity by citing anonymous administration sources, columnist Robert Novak, won't discuss his role in this mess while apparently avoiding the wrath of the wheels of justice.
There are big issues at stake in a case that The New York Times yesterday called "the most serious confrontation between the government and the press since the Pentagon papers case in 1971." The verbal contract guaranteeing anonymity to a source bearing important information is as crucial a transaction as exists in the journalism business. Without it, investigative reporting could literally dry up. At the same time, the Miller case can be seen in a larger context as another federal assault on the independence of the press at a time when the Federal Communications Commission is cracking down on purported indeceny and the Bush administration has displayed its penchant for closing off the media's access to information. It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Little wonder the news business is in high dudgeon over the Miller case. Her plight has generated front page headlines, reams of commentary and anguished editorials, not surprising given the media's propensity to cover issues near and dear to their own heart.
But how is it playing in Peoria? In one glimpse of the public's view, a recent University of Connecticut poll of journalists and citizens found that while only eight percent of the journalists approved of the court's ruling to require Miller to reveal confidential sources, 57 percent of the public agreed with that decision. Ken Dautrich, the chairman of the university's department of public policy, said this apparent lack of support for wide-ranging press freedom is based on a bigger problem -- "the public's lack of confidence in journalism today" and particular concerns about the accuracy of the news media.
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law and a savvy First Amendment expert, says journalists haven't done a very good job of convincing the public of the need for special legal protections against revealing sources. Thus reporters, she says, are seen by many citizens as "demanding special privileges" and "obstructing the government's good faith activities to get to the bottom of criminal activity."
And why should the public think there is something sacred about the use of confidential sources when news outlets are cracking down on their use and acknowledging widespread abuses? One recent glaring example was Newsweek's decision to dramatically tighten up on such sourcing after the magazines's now retracted story about guards at Guantanamo Bay desecrating the Koran -- based on an anonymous tipster -- turned into an international disaster. And what about the Plame case, in which sources cloaked in confidentiality exposed a CIA agent and may have been guilty of bald political retribution? You can't blame people for wondering why this kind of stuff is worth granting special privileges to reporters and those who drop dimes to them for all sorts of reasons.
Judy Miller surely doesn't deserve her fate. But while she sits in her cell as a media martyr, not everyone may see it that way. And her profession is partly to blame for that.
By the way, she has now been locked up for 1 day, 22 hours, 25 minutes,and 34 seconds.
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