Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Keep Reporters Out of Jail

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Keep Reporters Out of JailCrisis prevention

If someone said you could not go to church, could not meet about a controversial subject like, say, abortion, or could not protest a development that affected your neighborhood, most of us would proclaim it un-American, a violation of your constitutional rights, and come to your defense.

And yet I believe something un-American happened with threatening consequences.

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed, and other reporters may testify in court in the Scooter Libby indictment for lying to investigators.

Her imprisonment, as everyone now knows, grew out of the U.S. Justice probe into who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak who published it. Miller was tangentially involved and never disclosed Plame’s identity, but she refused to reveal confidential sources in connection with the disclosure: agent revelation being a felony. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved, Miller, with her publisher’s support, still refused to reveal sources and went to jail. Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and his editors cooperated and he remained free. The Wall Street Journal’s July 29, 2005, front page article “How Media Split Under Pressure” gave the nuance of the complicated case at the time of her jailing.

Nuance is not what we need, in my opinion. We must prohibit the jailing of legitimate reporters in pursuit of legitimate news except in extreme circumstances. Our democracy and our personal security depend on it. If a special prosecutor can lock up a journalist from one of the most esteemed newspapers in the world, then what hope is there for reporters who work for smaller papers far from major cities? All are intimidated. It does not matter that she later admitted she was too close to confidential sources who led her to believe, wrongly, that WMD’s justified the attack on Irag. Jailing reporter is a horrible precedent.

What’s at stake is the cowing of the Fourth Estate, and it affects us all. Let’s count the ways.

While the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government check and balance each other, who watches them? How about the military where sons and daughters sacrifice lives because of decisions made by politicians? Who watches them? What about federal officials who guard you from investment fraud? What about regulators who make sure your air and water aren’t polluted and that your travel is safe? What about those who tell you how much tax to pay and spend your tax dollars? How about the state and local officials who pass laws dictating your business or life? What about boards and commissions that decide what will be built, where, and whether your family will be affected? How about police and deputies and state troopers who protect your lives? What about school boards that determine what happens to your children? What about prosecutors, federal and local, who ensure justice? Who monitors the performance of all of these? Reporters!

I write often of my 23 years as a journalist. I have said that most reporters I knew, as well as the people we covered, were honorable and well-meaning. I have criticized disreputable journalists and untrustworthy government and business leaders: with injustices caused by both sides. Sometimes it is difficult to discern which is worse, but of one thing I am certain. The best correction for abuses by both is even tougher reporting.

I think we crossed a dreadful line by jailing Miller even though her own objectivity and performance came into question and she later lost her job at the Times. If the strongest forces in this country can put journalists behind bars then we are all in danger. No one will be watching. I have chided reporters for believing they are on a mission from God even as they make the lives of many of us so difficult, but God help America if reporters can’t protect us.

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