If You're Going To Write, Have Something To Write About
I have strong opinions, but what am I to do with them under the circumstances? Really.
So I suppose I'll have to write about the jailing of Judith Miller for contempt of court. Do I think it will harm American journalism or erode freedom of the press? Not materially, unless prosecutors begin to abuse the grand jury system even more than they now do. But that is a definite possibility.
What most Americans do not understand is that the grand jury system is probably the greatest failure of the founding fathers to secure your rights and my rights from an oppressive government. A prosecutor can subpeona you to appear before a grand jury, under oath, and ask you anything on earth about anything whatever. There are no standards in our law about what is a material and relevant question for a grand jury. Everything is fair game. The only limit to this is your constitutional protection against self-incrimination, and even that will not protect a scrap of your personal privacy if you are granted immunity from prosecution.
So, since the Supreme Court dodged the issue, which it can do indefinitely since there is no principle of constitutional law involved, journalists will, de facto, be under the same intrusive level of scrutiny as everyone else. Maybe this is minus for freedom of the press, but it is certainly not a minus for honest, intelligent, and full coverage of the news.
The abuse of journalistic anonymity by everyone with any measure of political clout is a far more corrosive thing to journalism than the jailing of Judith Miller, as the progress of the Valerie Plame affair makes perfectly clear. And Robert Novak, by publishing Plame's name, based on a source which he is still keeping anonymous, at least to us, is precisely what is most wrong with American journalism.
Novak's action is far greater breach of the public trust in journalists than the decision of Time magazine and its reporter (who now can be safely treated as anonymous himself, since he is no longer functional as a journalist in the affair) to reveal the information the prosecutor demanded.
What is now missing from almost all American journalism, and, particularly, journalism oriented toward Beltway issues, is the gumshoeing necessary to ask the right questions of any source, anonymous or not. Without the right questions you are simply at the mercy of their version of events and are a mere stenographer instead of a reporter. No one doing Washington journalism can take the time to investigate anything before publishing the most suspect anonymous rumor. If you want to see the difference, compare how the New York Times covers the New York State news in Albany to the national news in Washington.
The reason for this, of course, is the competitive immediacy of television news. Of course, strictly speaking, I don't regard most television news as real journalism, particularly the cable news networks. They are entertainment at best, and mere illustrated wire coverage, with less depth than the actual wire itself, at worst. This was not always so. CNN used to do some real journalism, when it was owned by Ted Turner, back during the early nineties. The broadcast network news is mere informed political opinion. And Fox News, always the spectacularly special case, is badly informed political opinion.
The only exception to this in Washinton coverage, as far as I can see, is Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, which concentrates almost exclusively on background analysis to feed to the Knight Ridder Newspaper chain, and so does two things which other Washington correspondents almost never do. They talk to middle-level spokespersons, anonymous or not, and they do the research in the public record so they can ask pointed and relevant questions.
The middle level spokespersons (often Civil Servants or career military officers rather than political appointees) generally have no political ax to grind, hence no motivation to abuse anonymity. And they usually really know what they are talking about, which is not always the case when the source is a political appointee.
So I suppose Judith Miller is a brave martyr to our right to know. But a minor martyr at best. For until the coverage is better, until the reporters are relieved of the insane 24/7 deadline pressure before they completely forget the need to do anything but act as a feed for anonymous sources or wire services, whatever our right to know, we will not know anything but what someone with an axe to grind wants us to know, unless we look for it in the public record ourselves.