Miller's "Heroism" 

Protecting one's sources is not the full measure of a reporter.

The Commercial Appeal last Monday published a strongly worded editorial defending Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who has been jailed for contempt of court for refusing to reveal a confidential source who might have been responsible for outing Valerie Plame, a CIA operative, in October 2003. This is a complex, convoluted story, but in its first reference in print to the Plame scandal, the CA chose to focus upon praising Miller for refusing to reveal her source. "Judicial interference with the relationship between reporter and source is a violation of First Amendment rights," asserted the CA. "Judith Miller's service in the cause of journalism and democratic society has been nothing less than heroic."

While going to jail is no one's idea of a good time, "heroic" seems a peculiar adjective to use in connection with this journalist, one whose previous claim to fame was misreporting - in stories based primarily upon unnamed sources - that Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction." Miller's Times stories about WMD relied almost exclusively upon anonymous government officials and unnamed Iraqi exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi, whom Bush administration insiders hoped to install as president when "democracy" was brought to that country.

Chalabi has since been utterly discredited, but sadly, Judith Miller has not, at least not yet, perhaps because many people in our business have joined The Commercial Appeal in rushing to her defense in this current situation. But while I'm as devout a supporter of the First Amendment as anyone, I find its application in the Miller case wrongheaded and something of an exercise in sophistry.

Protecting one's sources is all well and good, but it's not the only measure of a journalist's worth. First and foremost, a reporter needs to perform competently and behave ethically. If he makes use of anonymous sources, he has a responsibility to ensure that he is not being sold a bill of goods by those contacts, that his sources are also behaving ethically.

These are important benchmarks for our profession. And to me, these are First Amendment issues every bit as relevant as a journalist's willingness to protect his sources at all costs. Building stories around unreliable and/or clearly biased contacts who demand anonymity can be as serious an ethical betrayal as identifying a protected source. In such instances, the First Amendment cuts both ways.

Miller is not just a cub reporter who happened to get a few facts wrong. She is an experienced Times veteran, a woman whose "journalistic" efforts played a crucial role in convincing the American public that invading Iraq was a necessary, pre-emptive act of self-defense. She and her newspaper helped legitimize a war of aggression against a sovereign nation, a nation whose ruler was by all accounts a thug, yes, but a nation that did not pose any real threat to American security. By exaggerating that threat, by misusing anonymous sources, Miller in her own way is as responsible as anyone for the havoc unleashed upon Iraq.

Guilty at the very least of extraordinarily poor judgment, and perhaps guilty of far more, Miller should have been fired the moment that her WMD stories were revealed to have been little more than hoaxes. Instead, the Times half-apologized for its sloppiness in publishing her reports.

Miller now finds herself at the center of a First Amendment storm. But the real issue has nothing to do with protecting sources; it centers upon how a reporter who deliberately chose to represent "reality" as her anonymous contacts suggested has somehow managed to keep her job at what once was America's greatest newspaper. n

Kenneth Neill is the publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., which publishes the Flyer.


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