Feb 032008
Authors: Sean Reed

Journalists just don’t get the same respect they used to.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that a federal grand jury issued a subpoena to Pulitzer Prize-winner James Risen, one of its own contributing reporters, to release the name of a confidential source that gave him information for a chapter of his 2006 book on the Central Intelligence Agency.

The chapter in question detailed an unsuccessful plot by the CIA to “infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program,” during the early years of Bill Clinton’s administration, according to the Times.

This development comes in the wake of other similar cases of the government attempting to force journalists to reveal their confidential sources, including the case of Judith Miller, who was jailed for 85 days for refusing to divulge the name of a source that leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame until her source, Lewis “Scooter Libby,” gave her permission to reveal his name.

Hopefully, things will end up differently this time.

Journalists depend on the information of people who, sometimes, aren’t at liberty to publicly come out with information — for fear of a loss of job or contract violation, among other reasons.

Sometimes, though, the issue is big enough that, in the public interest, the information needs to get out. That’s when people turn to the press.

Reporters will always try to substantiate claims through other sources that are willing to go on the record, but if no one else is willing to come forward and, after investigation, the information appears to be sound, if the editors at the paper deem it appropriate, a story with an anonymous source may go through.

In spite of popular opinion, anonymous sources are not used recklessly. They are almost always used as a last resort, and a lot of careful consideration goes into approving a story with a confidential source at the center.

There will always be a level of uncertainty with stories containing confidential sources, but they are absolutely necessary to the heart of journalism.

Think about Watergate — no one can argue that the public had a right to know the connections between the hotel break-in and Nixon’s White House. But the story never would have come out if it hadn’t been for an anonymous source.

Now, with increasing numbers of subpoenas attempting to force journalists to reveal their sources, the ability of journalists to find important stories is being compromised.

The reason people are willing to come forward to journalists is the fact that, by and large, they honor their promises not to release their sources names. Just look at Judith Miller, she went to jail to protect her source’s identity. Many others have done the same.

So thus far, the trend of increasing judicial interference into journalists’ ability to keep confidential sources private has not been greatly influenced. But it is not likely to stay this way.

If subpoenas continue to be released increasingly often, eventually someone will crack — a source will be betrayed.

Once that happens, people will be less likely to come forward.

Martha K. Levin, executive vice president and publisher of Free Press, the company that published Risen’s book, put what is at stake best when she told the Times, “the ability to publish confidentially sourced information about our government’s practices and policies is one of the bedrock principles of a free and open society.”

It is against the public’s interest to compromise journalists’ ability to protect their sources. Let’s hope the judiciary can get with the picture.

Editorials Editor Sean Reed is a senior political science major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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