In free-press America, it's Miller time

Posted: Jul 08, 2005 12:00 AM

As New York Times reporter Judith Miller was taken in shackles to jail for declining to reveal her sources, two thoughts came to mind: The woman has great courage, and the American public should be deeply grateful for her integrity.

I hold firmly to the first notion. Miller is brave and represents the best of what journalism is supposed to be. In a word, trustworthy. She refused to renege on her promise to protect a source (or sources) interviewed during her investigation of the Valerie Plame outing case and now is behind bars.

Mind you, Miller never wrote a story about Plame, who was outed as an undercover CIA agent by columnist Robert Novak. By contrast, Miller only interviewed people as she tried to find out who in the Bush administration had leaked to Novak.

When Miller refused to turn over her notes or reveal her sources to a federal prosecutor, she was held in contempt and sentenced to 120 days in jail. Another reporter, Time magazine's Matt Cooper, was facing a similar fate when his source, presumably a different one than Miller's, released him from their confidentiality agreement.

Cooper went home Wednesday night and Miller went to jail.

Many old-school journalists are appropriately awed by Miller's conviction. All of us wonder whether we'd be so stalwart at the end. But I'll have to drop the fantasy about a grateful public, as schedenfreude on both sides of the political aisle has reached a mean pitch.

Much of the antiwar crowd, which blamed Miller's Iraq reporting about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for stoking the widespread belief that Saddam Hussein was harboring WMD, is delighted by her sentence. Miller's now-notorious WMD stories were later revealed to have been based on unreliable sources. It happens.

On the other side, conservatives who view Miller as part of the liberal media cabal are heel-clicking happy that she's been locked up. Some of the nastier remarks posted on Internet blogs suggest that she deserved worse, but posters seem consoled by the Miller precedent.

Here's one representative posting on, a conservative e-watering hole where "L-dotters" post stories and vent:

". No longer will 'UN-named sources' be a viable route for 'Rat propagandists to smear and impugn Republicans. . Journalists that continue to ply the murky waters of this issue will have done so knowing that the waters are full of legal mines and better be well prepared to expect to get their hulls cracked and blown open."

Thus is the public's distrust of the media made vivid. But also on display is the widespread misunderstanding that the media are all Democrats out to get Republicans. There are times when reporters may need to bring down a bad Democrat (though the Dems will have to be in power first), and it will be far easier if sources feel they can speak freely with impunity.

Much of this public distrust is understandable. We have the Jayson Blairs, Jack Kelleys and other fakers and fumblers to thank for helping cement the impression that the media are unreliable. It is also true that a majority of reporters lean left, though most hover closer to the center than the extreme.

And it's also certainly true that the practice of protecting sources is overused and abused. Disciples of the "Deep Throat" template have found it too convenient to cite unnamed sources for stories that don't always justify such elaborate cover. For that reason many papers, including my own, prohibit unnamed sources except under extraordinary circumstances.

But what is truer than all of the above is that Judith Miller's and Matt Cooper's stories are not really about journalism or special privileges for media. Miller received no special dispensation, but made a personal choice of conscience and is paying the price.

Rather, their stories are about the public's right to know and to have access to information in order to govern themselves. Smaller community newspapers might get by without anonymous sources because, indeed, the stakes are not so high on most daily beats. But in the power axis of the world, where lives and fortunes and political futures are the reporter's ransom, confidentiality is critical.

Without reporters who will protect those who tell dangerous secrets, the same people who applaud Miller's incarceration will know only what the government wants them to know. I'd rather risk the occasional anonymous scoundrel - or suffer the institutional humiliation of a bad actor posing as a journalist - than leave fate to the whims of men and women enjoying the hubristic intoxication of power and their own manufactured myths.

May Judith Miller's tribe go forth and multiply.