Journalism, like politics, depends on a slew of useful fictions. They're too numerous to list here (besides, they make for so many useful column topics, I'd hate to pre-empt myself). But it is worth pausing to watch as a new myth is sculpted before our very eyes.
Over the last decade or so the media has carefully cultivated an ingenious distinction. Call it: whistleblowers versus leakers. You've surely seen both of these mesmerizing creatures on display in the carnival menagerie that is your nightly news. "Whistleblowers" reveal things "America needs to hear." "Leakers" have grubby agendas.
Interestingly, whistleblowers, despite the media's love for them, are rarely famous for long. The year 2002 was "The Year of the Whistleblower." Time magazine lamely named "whistleblowers" as their "Person of the Year," putting three female whistleblowers on the cover. I doubt one in a thousand readers remember who all three of those women were (answer: Colleen Rowley of the FBI, Sherron Watkins of Enron and Cynthia Cooper of Worldcom). This makes sense because most of these people are props, disposable icons used to make a desired point.
Now don't get me wrong: I have no problem with "whistleblowing" per se. Exposing wrongdoing at great personal risk can be a sign of great courage as well as a moral obligation. The problem is that "whistleblower," with its positive, even heroic connotations, is an honorific the press confers only on those whose whistleblowing is music to their ears. (Nothing but guffaws greeted Linda Tripp's supporters when they called her a whistleblower.) Everybody else is a mere "leaker" - or worse. And the truth of the matter is that the press is simply not a reliable arbiter of who is Thomas More and who is Ratso Rizzo.
Indeed, it often seems the case that the morality of the messenger is determined by the juiciness of the tidbit they deliver. The most famous example is Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat. Unlike most "whistleblowers," he stayed famous largely because he stayed a mystery for so long. A whole gauzy veil of romance enshrouded the former No. 2 man at the FBI who gave Bob Woodward the goods on President Nixon. In 2005, Molly Ivins described a "Deep Throat" as a "noble whistleblower who dared to go to the press because his sense of integrity had been outraged by official misconduct and he had no other option." The fact that Felt - who was convicted of ordering illegal break-ins - snitched on Nixon not because he wanted to save the Republic but because he was bitter at being passed over for J. Edgar Hoover's job proved to be a small inconvenience amidst all the adulation.
A more recent case is former Ambassador Joe Wilson. Wilson burst into the limelight when he accused President Bush of lying in his 2003 State of the Union by saying that, according to British intelligence, Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. Whatever Wilson's initial motives for attacking Bush's "16 words" may have been, two truths are now obvious.
The first is that Wilson was wrong and Bush was right (and the White House was foolish for saying otherwise). Britain's Butler Commission famously reinvestigated that allegation and found that it was "well-founded." France - no fan of the war or Bush - stood by the allegation as well. Journalist Christopher Hitchens and others have cataloged how Iraq had dispatched an envoy to Africa to inquire about acquiring uranium "yellowcake." Indeed, Wilson's own verbal report to the CIA confirmed to his debriefers that Iraq sought the stuff. But the press continues to call Wilson a "whistleblower," no doubt largely because Wilson's message is damaging to Bush and undercuts the rationale for the war.
The second truth is that there is nothing noble about Wilson's "whistleblower" schtick. These days, he slumps further and further into asininity, hurling insults at his critics. In one recent speech, detailed on the blog Daily Kos, Wilson said that the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol is a "drunk" and that he wants to punch America's ambassador to Iraq in the face. He even snidely insinuated that some prominent Republicans are closeted homosexuals. Even The New Republic's Jason Zengerle felt compelled to declare recently "Experts agree: Wilson's a pig."
Meanwhile, led by the New York Times, the press has created a perverse double standard. When Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, had her identity as a CIA employee leaked to the press, media Brahmins demanded that a special prosecutor force journalists to divulge their sources in order to punish the leakers. But when other, vastly more sensitive, classified information was leaked - the existence of secret prisons in Europe, the NSA's wiretapping program, etc. - the press gasped with outrage at the suggestion that such leaks should be investigated. When President Bush declassifies information and gives it to the press - as he has the unique authority to do - press chin-strokers are gobsmacked by Bush's "hypocritical" leaking.
So, if you want to decode what the press means when they salute a whistleblower for delivering news "America needs to hear," just remember that what they're really saying is, "This is news the press wants you to hear."