News War Connects the Dots on Vanishing Press Freedoms; And How an Ailing NYC Police Officer Fooled the Media
She also produced a court decision that may change the shape of press freedom for decades to come -- encouraging government prosecutors to force reporters to reveal their confidential sources in stories that come too close to govenrment investigations.
The end result: reporters working everywhere from the national security beat to baseball's steroid scandal now must fear being dragged into court, asked about the identity of their sources and choosing between betraying the confidence -- and destroying their crediblity as reporters -- or going to jail.
That's just one of the many uplifting truths explored in Frontline's compelling new documentary, News War, airing at 10 tonight on WEDU-Ch. 3 (check out PBS' web site chock full of video snippets and extras here).
Throughout this four-hour story airing over two months, Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Lowell Bergman connects the dots between Miller's involvement in the Valerie Plame scandal, attempts to force reporters top testify in court, and the escalating war between the White House and big-time journalists for control of the national agenda.
"The Bush administration does not accept that the press has a legitimate pulbic interest role," notes media writer Ken Auletta, one of more than 80 sources Bergman interviews to trace the contours of this particular News War. (hear Bergman speak on the issues raised by his series to Fresh Air's Terry Gross here).
Miller's resistance to divulging who told her the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame -- and her newspaper's decision to resist prosecutors to the point Miller herself was jailed -- led to a reaffirmation that reporters had no right to refuse to testify about sources in federal court. That decision has been used to pressure journalists to reveal sources everywhere from the Wen Ho Lee case to the BALCO baseball and steroids scandal.
Bergman also notes that prosecutors may be more aggressive because public sympathy for journalists is at an all-time low. Back during the Watgergate era, journalists were seen as the crusaders who unmasked the law breaking of the Nixon White House and efforts to hide the failure of war in Vietnam. (at left, heroic '70s-era Watergate investigative reporters next to today's celebrity/journalist, CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo)
News War doesn't explicitly cite a few other elements leading to the press' public relations tumble, including efforts by government officials to discredit journalism, attacks by an organized conservative-oriented media structure and high profile press mistakes such as the Wen Ho Lee reporting and Dan Rather's Memogate scandal.
Still, as I noted Sunday, this is a show worth watching -- even though it plays out mostly as a parade of old white guys in ties talking about govenrment, law and journalism. Because sometimes the importance of connecting the dots in our society can be directly proportional to how boring sifting through all the information actually is.
More Short Takes
Perhaps the counter terrorism officials who couldn't name the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite arabs should tune in: NPR has an interesting series of reports detailing the history of divisions between the two groups all this week. And the coolest thing about NPR reports is that the service's focus on digital media means they're available as streaming audio and podcasts long after they air.
---Speaking of NPR, my pal Kelly McBride, head of the media ethics program at the Poynter Institute here in St. Petersburg, had a wonderful commentary aired on public radio Monday about her kids getting a false sense of athletic accomplishment from playing sports games on the Nintendo Wii. Parents everywhere who have yelled at their children to go outside and play already, were nodding across the nation in agreement.
---And the NYT had an interesting story today about Cesar Borja -- a 52-year-old policeman who died recently after being lauded as someone who worked tirelessly in the ruins of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks, only to contract a fatal lung disease for his trouble.
Problem is, the man's own diaries showed he didn't work at the disaster site as long as news reports claimed; he didn't have a formal shift at the site until December 2001 -- three months after the attack. But news reports breathlessly recounted his work as a first responder on the attack site and his son has become a high-profile spokesperson on the issue of health care for ailing 9/11 emergency responders.
His family, who tiptoes aound the question of why they didn't correct apparently false reports that he spent so much time working as a volunteer on the rubble, said the New York Times' recent request for documentation of his work was the first time any newspaper asked for documentation of his efforts. Seems some media outlets were so desperate for a 9/11 rescue worker illness story, they didn't look too hard at the one which was handed to them.