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Is this a "desperate time" for journalists?

In a recent Washington Post article, "The Alure of Leaks Dries Up," (July 18, 2005) Howard Kurtz suggests that the journalism profession has been demoralized by developments surrounding anonymous sources, accusations of plagiarism and other high profile misdeeds. For organizations and their public relations counselors interested in communicating powerful messages through the media, it is important to understand the evolving dynamics underway. The issues surrounding how journalists handle anonymous and named sources are essential to the development of viable public relations and media relations strategies and they deserve the attention of public relations counselors.

Kurtz writes:

Thirty-three years after Bob Woodward first met Mark Felt in an Arlington parking garage, echoes of the Watergate era seem to be everywhere.

But the comparisons for the press are not all that flattering.

Liberal critics of the media, who believe journalists abysmally failed to challenge the president''s WMD claims during the Iraq war buildup, feel vindicated by news that two reporters were granting Karl Rove anonymity as he tried to undermine a prominent debunker of those claims, Joe Wilson, by mentioning his wife''s CIA role. Some even fault Judith Miller for her act of conscience in going to jail, saying the New York Times reporter is merely protecting Rove (though no one knows whether her source was the White House political adviser or someone else).

For those who see the secretive Bush administration as a reincarnation of the Nixon regime, the disclosure that Rove served as a source for Time''s Matt Cooper and columnist Robert Novak looks like the slow unraveling of a scandal that has now reached the top level of the White House. Scott McClellan is cast in the Ron Ziegler role, refusing to answer a barrage of reporters'' questions about Rove after his previous answers were rendered inoperative.

Even the media''s preferred narrative -- built around the sanctity of anonymous sources -- comes up short. Unlike Deep Throat, who risked his FBI career by telling Woodward about the Nixon spying operation and coverup, Rove and whoever else leaked Valerie Plame''s CIA connection to Novak and other journalists were doing partisan dirty work, and some may have been committing a crime. Cooper and others have argued that they can''t make a distinction between "good guy" and "bad guy" sources -- a promise is a promise -- but helping White House officials finger a covert operative is not exactly the kind of work that builds public support for the Fourth Estate.

Time Inc. has come under a barrage of journalistic criticism for caving to pressure -- and ignoring Cooper''s objections -- in surrendering the reporter''s notes and e-mails to a special prosecutor, thus announcing to all potential sources that a pledge of confidentiality could crumble. (Cooper, who describes his grand jury testimony in the new issue of Time, says he was "upset" by the company''s decision.) Woodward was never subpoenaed during Watergate, but Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham withstood enormous pressure from the White House, including threats against the company''s television licenses.

The New York Times, unlike Time, is standing firm despite losing in the courts, and Miller chose to change her address to the Alexandria Detention Center rather than betray her sources. But since she never wrote a story about any of this, it''s hard to argue that her source cultivation produced important journalism.

In short, we have the unusual spectacle of a nationally known, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter being jailed and little public outcry. Not even journalists are unanimous about Miller; in his brief demanding her imprisonment, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald cited a Los Angeles Times editorial and a Chicago Tribune column by Steve Chapman challenging the media''s absolutist stance on sources.

This is a tangled tale in which no one looks good. And that goes double for Novak, the syndicated columnist and CNN commentator who disclosed Plame''s CIA connection in July 2003, based on "two senior administration officials."

Novak''s refusal to say whether he was subpoenaed or has cooperated with Fitzgerald is starting to draw fire from other journalists. William Safire wrote in the Times that "Mr. Novak should finally write the column he owes readers and colleagues perhaps explaining how his two sources, who may have truthfully revealed themselves to investigators, managed to get the prosecutor off his back." Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University''s journalism department, wrote on his PressThink blog that other media people should shun Novak and that if he "says he can''t talk until the case is over, then he shouldn''t be allowed to publish or opine on the air until the case is over."

Novak told CNN it is "very ridiculous" to describe him as "the cause" of Miller going to jail but that he cannot discuss the case on his lawyer''s advice.

The Miller case has already had an impact on at least one other newspaper. Doug Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote recently that he is sitting on "two stories of profound importance," but that both are based on leaked documents and publication "would almost certainly lead to a leak investigation and the ultimate choice: talk or go to jail."

Reporter-source relationships are complicated affairs, as Woodward makes clear in his new book "The Secret Man." He and Felt had contentious dealings, and to this day Woodward says he is not sure whether his informant was outraged by Nixon White House corruption or also trying to protect the turf of what had been J. Edgar Hoover''s FBI. Felt even signed a find-the-leakers memo denigrating the stories by Woodward and Carl Bernstein as containing "much fiction and half truths."

Woodward''s career skyrocketed after the Watergate book and movie in which Deep Throat was a key character, while Felt''s declined. He was convicted (and later pardoned) of authorizing break-ins and had to live with his betrayal of his colleagues, albeit for a just cause. Woodward admits he didn''t always behave admirably, even lying to a colleague, Post columnist Richard Cohen, in an effort to protect Felt''s identity.

Whatever mixed motives Felt may have had, he was helping a newspaper expose criminal wrongdoing. But in the intervening 33 years, journalists have so badly overused unnamed sources on routine stories that they have come to be seen as too cozy with political insiders. And sometimes, as in Newsweek''s retracted story about U.S. prison guards abusing the Koran, a single source is just wrong (although other instances of Koran desecration were later confirmed).

As more journalists have been fired for plagiarism and fabrication, and as television has often been consumed by accused celebrities, runaway brides and missing white women, the profession has seemed demoralized. The reports of Judith Miller sleeping on a foam mattress on a jailhouse floor have added to that sense of depression.

When a 91-year-old man came forward as Deep Throat a few weeks ago, many journalists took one last wallow in the era when they were seen as ferreting out wrongdoing. Now, as they try to protect the secret sources who outed Valerie Plame, journalists themselves are often being depicted as the wrongdoers.

Dan Keeney
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Author: Dan Keeney
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