Journalism's Sausage Factory Under Serious Scrutiny
The news that FBI investigators use national security letters to secretly probe the online use, library activities and telephone calls of U.S. citizens who are not themselves suspected of terrorism -- to the tune of 30,000 letters a year.
These are all important stories involving government activity which may have required conversations with journalists about secret or classified material to complete. And, as Washington Post Media critic Howard Kurtz reports today, the government is pressing a prosecution which could increasingly criminalize such conversations.
In the case Kurtz writes about, two pro-Israel lobbyists are under prosecution for calling journalists to discuss a story tip which came from a Pentagon analyst -- calls law enforcement taped using wiretaps. Suddenly, as the dust from the CIA leak case continues to swirl, journalists once again face the possiblity of being called to testify about sources whom they may not even have included in a story.
While it does raise important questions about whether journalists have the right to discuss classified information with secret sources without incurring the wrath of prosecutors, it also highlights another important point.
At a time when journalists seem under more scrutiny than ever before, our methods matter nearly as much as our results.
It's something that struck me weeks ago while listening to a co-worker of Judith Miller's explain what she is now saying in public -- that she would never have actually referred to Scooter Libby as a "former Hill staffer" in a news story, and only agreed to the attribution to hear what he had to say.
How do we know this? Well, she says so.
New York magazine columnist Kurt Andersen said something similar in a June column titled Welcome to the Sausage Factory, noting that journalists sometimes have to use what he called "unattractive journalistic techniques" such as extensive use of anonymous sources, excessive flattery or badgering sources to get information for stories.
He's right, of course. But I'm convinced the lassez faire, what-can-you-do-about-it? attitude displayed in his column will come back to haunt journalists if widely displayed. Because our audiences have a quickly shrinking tolerance for dubious methods, and courts are giving us less wiggle room than ever.
It's a dynamic I saw back in August, when Bill O'Reilly highlighted portions of former St. Petersburg Times reporter Jim Harper's conversations with indicted former USF professor Sami Al-Arian. Harper seemed to be speaking sympathetically to Al-Arian to get him to open up, but a transcript of the conversation -- recorded by law enforcement through a wiretap -- made the reporter look a bit too friendly.
Now, more than ever, journalists must realize such ethical lines don't just ensure accurate information . It may sound naive or pollyannish to some, but such standards also allow consumers to trust what they're reading, because they can know our methods are as ethical as our results.