Politics & Policy

Fourth Estate of Privilege

Journalists want special rights.

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the mainstream media are suffering from the perception that they’re just the teeniest bit arrogant. Oh, who am I kidding? They behave like they’re nobles or a priestly class. Dan Rather, Brian Williams, and Peter Jennings might as well wear flowing ermine robes. From their palaces in midtown Manhattan they determine what the peasants see and read. They regard upstarts such as National Review, Fox News, and–shudder–bloggers as little more than a motley collection of heretics, Anabaptists, and barbarians.

In the Middle Ages, aristocrats and clerics were protected by a panoply of rules and customs–sumptuary laws, for example–that separated them from the peons. Henry VIII declared that no man below the rank of earl could “wear cloth of gold or silver, or silk of purple color” in an effort to maintain a color-coding system for the lower classes.

Well, elite journalists may not want a color-coding system for the rabble, but they do seem keen on having special laws just for them. How else are we to judge demands stemming from the Valerie Plame investigation? Recall that columnist Robert Novak revealed, perhaps inadvertently, CIA official Valerie Plame’s identity in his column. The charge is that White House officials deliberately leaked her identity to Novak as payback after her husband, Joseph Wilson, “blew the whistle” on the administration. Wilson, a media prima donna of shocking proportions even for Washington, claimed that the White House knowingly put his wife’s life in danger (this was shortly before Wilson and his wife posed in a big photo spread for Vanity Fair).

Personally, I am dubious of the charge, and I think Wilson’s credibility is beyond wanting. But we won’t know until we know. So the Justice Department is rightly investigating the allegations, and the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, wants various journalists who were reportedly also fed the information about Plame to testify. One of these journalists, Judith Miller of the New York Times, is scheduled to appear before a judge this week and may go to jail if she doesn’t spill the beans (this column was filed on the eve of her appearance). She vows that she won’t reveal her sources. Miller’s case is special because she never wrote about Plame.

But now liberals are furious that journalists might actually have to help the investigation they demanded. Journalists are beyond indignant. As a group, they seem to think asking journalists to reveal their sources is more sacrilegious than using a church as a stable.

The commentary about this affair is focused on whether or not journalists should report what they know about a crime. After all, knowingly endangering a CIA agent’s identity is, and should be, a serious offense. If a plumber witnesses a crime, he has to say what he saw or he goes to jail. But not journalists. Indeed, Michael Kinsley recounts an illuminating story. “A very distinguished New York Times writer” once told Kinsley that “if the Times ballet critic, heading home after assessing the day’s offerings of pliés and glissades, happens to witness a murder on her way to the Times Square subway, she has a First Amendment right and obligation to refuse to testify about what she saw.” Why? Because she’s a journalist!

But in all of this debate, what people seem to be overlooking is that journalists aren’t always analogous to witnesses to crimes. Sometimes they’re accomplices. Imagine that a vindictive government official wants to embarrass an opponent by leaking his tax returns. He steals them from confidential files and meets a reporter from the Times in a back alley. The reporter publishes them. It seems to me the reporter isn’t a witness, he’s an accessory. If it makes it easier to understand the point, imagine instead of tax returns it’s plans for a cheap nuclear weapon al Qaeda could make.

Obviously, there’s a real, longstanding tension here; journalists do need some wiggle-room. But keep in mind, the Plame case isn’t about a whistleblower. It’s allegedly about a government official (or officials) abusing their authority. These journalists aren’t exposing wrongdoing; they’re concealing it.

Indeed, the reigning talking point from the First Amendment voluptuaries is that lawyers and doctors are protected from revealing secrets, why shouldn’t journalists be? Well, lawyers are not allowed to help their clients break the law, and neither are doctors. If it’s against the law to ID a CIA agent, why should journalists–including Novak–be automatically off the hook?

What’s particularly ironic is that the big-media lawyers fear the courts will allow a blanket shield for journalists because there’s no way to exclude one-man-band web journalists–bloggers–from the new right. And what’s the point of giving the nobility a new privilege if any peasant can take advantage of it, too?

(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services

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