Lessons of the Fall: The Un-Pentagon Papers

November 14, 2005

The affair that began with the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson by columnist Robert Novak nearly 2-1/2 years ago is shaping up as a landmark in contemporary journalism.

Running through it are unusually rich veins, from the global to the interpersonal: world politics at its most momentous, with war and peace in the balance; use of the media as an instrument of state power to quell political opposition; the questionable independence of the press and its right to stand up to the courts; the status of a journalist’s promise to an informant and whether it is a covenant that the reporter is duty-bound to honor; and where, in this food fight among politicians, lawyers and journalists, is the public interest?

By comparison, the spate of newsroom scandals involving fabrication, intellectual theft and punch-drunk fact-checking that got so much attention  the Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, Dan Rather dustups  were watery gruel. There was nothing to chew on. Everybody already knew you’re not supposed to make things up, and it’s no surprise that you’re obligated to have the goods before you air them.

But the Novak affair poses big, vexing questions for the future of journalism. It’s a defining moment  but now that it’s heading toward a denouement, what has it defined?

That’s a question people are avoiding. The vice president’s major domo, Lewis Libby, has been charged with lying about what he told reporters. His highest-profile interlocutor, Judith Miller, has been hounded into leaving the New York Times for, near as I can tell, the unpardonable offense of embarrassing her employer. (Miller’s vilification, while Novak, the dark princeling of the affair, minces from one TV appearance to the next, is an especially repellent sideshow in this circus.) With all that, there’s a sense that the process has moved on, that it’s before the courts, that at most another senior administration aide may get toasted, but otherwise the story is yesterday’s news.

It isn’t. Regardless of its ultimate political effects, the affair has huge consequence for the beleaguered practice of journalism. And in that regard it is a calamity.

The Novak/Wilson affair has been the Un-Pentagon Papers: There, in 1971, we had a brave and dramatic assertion of press independence, where governmental deceptions were exposed in hopes of enlightening the public and reversing bad policy. Here, from the outset we have had an abject surrender of press independence in the service of governmental deception intended to delude the public and sustain bad policy.

At its broadest, in my view, the contemporary challenge to journalism is whether a truth-seeking practice rooted in independence and professionalism, and conducted in the public interest, can survive. And in that regard, it’s hard to imagine how the Novak/Wilson affair could have worked out any worse.

The story began with high-level deceit about a non-existent strategic threat, claims the media did almost nothing to discredit. Instead, operating under the clubby rules governing D.C. journalists and their most favored sources, top reporters casually admitted powerful officials into chummy confidences so the politicos could fire on those who did criticize the claims  notably ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson  from behind cover.

Hence, the process was driven by confidentiality promises that shouldn’t have been made and irresponsible leaks that should not have been published, since they illuminated little, furthered a reckless political reprisal and caused needless harm, destroying the CIA career of Wilson’s wife.

Months later, in another kick to the groin for media independence, as the prosecutor ramped up his investigation some of these same reporters became supplicants, beseeching the officials to whom they’d unwisely promised confidentiality for permission to slide out of those agreements and stay out of trouble.

Libby’s indictment was the product of evidence provided by reporters who had promised to keep their mouths shut. And to those of us who care about the future of journalism’s fragile claim to independence, the fact that reporters had let themselves be exploited by the powerful  not exactly a novel event  matters less than the destruction of the press as a sanctuary for the powerless. In the final analysis the country is better served by having media that can offer such refuge than by forcing a political courtier to explain his duplicity before a judge.

I’ve written about this affair for nearly two years, a half-dozen columns and two academic pieces. My first was in late 2003, when elaborating on a remark made at an ethics symposium at Washington and Lee by my old friend, journalist and media entrepreneur Steven Brill, I asked why it was that reporters weren’t charging after the origin of the leak of a CIA agent’s name. It’s worth imagining how events might now be different if the press had sought to clean up its own mess. Then as now, the answer to the problem hearkens back to the old J-school maxim: The antidote to bad journalism is good journalism.

The press will survive the Novak/Plame affair. But it’s a weakened institution, and the full extent of damage it has suffered has yet to be tallied.

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