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The Tentacle


July 8, 2005

She Committed No Crime

Roy Meachum

Judith Miller sits today in a federal detention center because she refused to “pander” to Special Prosecutor Patrick A. Fitzgerald’s insistent demand that she disclose the source of conversations that never saw print.

Mr. Fitzgerald deserves strong disapproval for his absolute refusal to disclose reasons for demanding jail time for The New York Times reporter, especially when there is strong reason to believe he has answers to all his questions, including names.

Operating with a secretiveness that violates the American tradition of openness in government, the U. S. attorney in Chicago has conducted a peek-a-boo inquiry over the past two years that has culminated, at this stage, in jailing a reporter for a story she did not write.

Neither Ms. Miller nor her editors revealed why her investigation into the illegal disclosure of a covert CIA agent’s real identity resulted in the conclusion that all her time and the company’s money were wasted. In the end, they may have reached the conclusion because they didn’t want to use material by a source that chose not to be identified.

At least, no product resulted. And newspapers resemble every other business in the sense none can afford investments that bring no pay off. Consider Ms. Miller’s professional record; it must be assumed she and her editors agreed she could add little significant to the continuing scandal created by columnist Robert Novak’s exposure of the agent’s name.

Why my former television colleague has escaped penalty for flagrantly breaking the law remains a mystery, which invites speculation the one-time kid from Cicero, Illinois, receives protection from the highest levels of government. His is more than a charmed life.

When his hair was still black, during the years we worked together, Bob Novak acquired from some source unknown to me the title “Prince of Darkness,” a synonym for the devil. In this instance, however, he appears better cast as a new-day Faust who sold his soul to the original Prince of Darkness to acquire all he desired from this world. Bob Novak’s insider status with fellow right-wing Republicans, after all, brought him the information that enabled him to strike out at a presidential critic, a former career ambassador married to the lady spy. That was in 2003 when George W. Bush and his closest allies still pretended, with acquiescence from the press, including The Times, that a just basis had existed for invading Iraq.

Obviously Prosecutor Fitzgerald early on reached some form of accommodation with the only human being who unquestionably knows the two White House officials anonymously cited in his column that caused the ruckus, which prompted follow-up stories by other journalists.

Curiously, of all the reporters that sought their own versions of what happened in the scandal, Time Magazine’s Matthew Cooper stood figuratively alone beside Ms. Miller when the U.S. Supreme Court – by remaining silent – confirmed last week the patently obvious. Another ruling could have fully justified complaints courts legislate instead of interpreting existing laws. The judge in the case then ordered both reporters either to tell Mr. Fitzgerald’s Grand Jury what he wanted to know or go to jail.

The justices weighed in exclusively on the federal jurisdiction where, despite the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a press unfettered by governmental interference, no law supports the principle that sources can ask for a guarantee of anonymity before disclosing information that affects the public interest.

After the Pentagon Papers brouhaha sent another Times' reporter to the hoosegow, some 31 states and the District of Columbia enacted so-called “shield laws,” which protect journalists on the Jeffersonian principle they serve the common good by acting as watchdogs on officials.

In sentencing Ms. Miller Wednesday, Judge Thomas F. Hogan took a mighty swipe at the practice, which enabled the unmasking of the Watergate crimes that led to the resignation of a sitting president and the conviction of a slew of high-ranking types, including the attorney general of the United States.

But, not knowing the gentleman, I must accede the possibility that Judge Hogan might have had Richard Nixon’s fate very much in mind when he abjectly dismissed the tradition, likening The New York Times’ reporter to a “child saying: ‘I’m still going to take that chocolate chip cookie and eat it. I don’t care.’ ”

The federal judge left no doubt of his warm approval of Time’s surrender to political pressure; its management hastened, immediately the Supreme Court ruled, to turn over all the material in its possession to Mr. Fitzgerald. The fact that the protected source provided release scarcely mitigates the enormity of the betrayal, to professional standards in general but particularly the equally beleaguered Times.

The magazine sent a signal it was unwilling to back its reporters, abandoning the newspaper and leaving Matthew Cooper naked before the special prosecutor who demanded he personally “cooperate” or go to jail. On his part, the reporter refused to accept Time’s trumpeted claim to absolution as applying to him, fearing the source had caved in to enormous pressure from his management.

To his personal credit, Mr. Cooper held fast, refusing to betray a trust, until the still unnamed source directly communicated with him that he should make disclosure.

For readers who do not understand, please let me explain: As a breed, reporters do not trust management, especially their own. Even the rawest editorial assistant understands full well: Company decisions are frequently reached for reasons that have nothing to do with the Founding Fathers’ mandate that the press act as a barrier against the undue exercise of power, private as well as public.

Despite obfuscating clamor from the right and far from dictating what reporters write, the mere appearance of top management in most newsrooms ranks roughly in the same category as an invasion by flea-loaded dogs. On their side, business types generally suspect reporters of ignoring corporate best interests. And they are right!

The same “without fear or favor” approach that should dominate covering official acts must equally be extended to the private sector. The American system has never worked better than in all those stories that detail how CEO’s and other executives have ripped off share holders and taxpayers.

As evidenced by Ms. Miller’s hauling to the Alexandria federal pokey across the Potomac, shackled by her wrists and ankles, these are not the best of times for journalists who mean to practice their trade “without fear or favor.”

Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” characters would feel right at home in the curious, more curious and exceedingly curious world created by a most manipulative White House and pitifully compliant press.

Time confirmed this week important elements of the press are still willing to sacrifice integrity for the sake of political peace, as indelibly demonstrated by the media’s craven surrender of their responsibility during the run-up to the Iraqi invasion. Shame on them!

The New York Times deserves no high marks in the sordid situation. The newspaper’s brass must be made to realize complicity in White House cover-ups, including Iraq, created conditions that fostered Judge Hogan’s arrogant disregard for how this democracy works.

By any fair standard, Times’ Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., should have had his wrists and ankles bound; it should be his well-tailored derriere resting on the prison bunk.

Judith Miller’s presence in jail amounts to an American tragedy, a very black mark on the national claim to respect rights, including the freedom of every individual to talk with others. She committed no crime. She wrote no story.



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