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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Keep It Like a Secret

The New York Times opinion manufacturing division has concocted a new ethical hoop for righteous journalists to jump through in an attempt to retroactively render sensible the bizarre odyssey of Judith Miller. Evidently, right-thinking reporters are barred from even asking confidential sources for a release from confidentiality--it would be coercive!--which conveniently explains why Miller went to the hoosegow when her source, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, would have been more than happy to release her had she only asked. It was nothing more than an excess of ethical caution:
Why, then, did she agree to testify yesterday? Could Ms. Miller have gotten the permission earlier? Why didn't she just pick up the phone and ask?

When a journalist guarantees confidentiality, it means that he or she is willing to go to jail rather than disclose the source's identity. We also believe it means that the journalist will not try to coerce the source into granting a waiver to that promise--even if her back is against the wall. If Ms. Miller's source had wanted to release her from her promise, he could have held a press conference and identified himself. And obviously, he could have picked up the phone. Ms. Miller believed--and we agree--that it was not her place to try to hound him into telling her that she did not need to keep her promise.
This is, of course, bullshit. Every reporter who deals with anonymous sources is familiar with the tactic of going back to their sources and pressing them to go on the record with as much information as possible. It's our job to try to edge our sources back away from anonymity, even if we've granted it as a way to get important information out of them. Here's what the New York Times' Confidential News Sources Policy has to say on the matter:
In routine interviewing--that is, most of the interviewing we do--anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source. Exceptions will occur in the reporting of highly sensitive stories, when it is we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us. Similarly they will occur in approaches to authoritative officials in government who, as a matter of policy, do not speak for attribution. On those occasions, we may use an offer of anonymity as a wedge to make telephone contact, get an interview or learn a fact. In such a case, the reporter should press the source, after the conversation, to go on the record with the newsworthy information that has emerged.