Saturday, August 14


The opinions of Josh Marshall and other journalists I respect notwithstanding, I think the L.A. Times speaks perfectly for my sentiments:

Here we have an uncomfortable contradiction. You can believe that people who reveal the names of CIA agents deserve exposure, vilification and punishment. You can believe that people who leak secret information to journalists deserve confidentiality, praise and protection from punishment. But you cannot easily believe both these things in this case because the good and the bad people are the same people. The purpose of allowing journalists to protect the identity of leakers is to protect and encourage leaks. But there are leaks and there are leaks. It makes no sense for the government to encourage leaks that it rightly outlaws.
Journalists would prefer not to make this kind of distinction. A clear and simple principle that you never reveal a source would encourage leaks more effectively than a policy with a lot of provisos. Of course, any journalist is free to promise anonymity to a source, with or without a "get out of jail free" card. But the belief that a journalist is willing to go to jail to protect a source's identity will never be as reassuring to potential sources as certainty that he or she won't have to.
In the haze of self-righteousness about protecting sources, though, it is easy to lose sight of the cost. The cost of giving absolute legal protection to journalists' secrets is to make the government's secrets impossible to protect.

Maybe it's time for journalists and judges to stop staging these 1st Amendment melodramas. Journalists — who are citizens too — could help by being less promiscuous with offers of anonymity in the first place. If it is information you believe should not be out there — because it endangers lives (of a covert agent's contacts, for instance) or because it is wrong or deeply misleading — why should you even consider going to jail to protect the source?


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