Archive: The Ethics of Keeping You in the Dark

Journalism 102: The Ethics of Keeping You in the Dark
(Robert G. Kaiser, October 5, 2003, Washington Post)

Original link:

Excerpts from, with another excerpt from spliced in based on overlapping text:

In modern Washington, particularly in the executive branch, officials are usually unwilling to talk to reporters “on the record.” Many of them are under standing orders from their bosses never to do so. “On background,” the favored alternative, allows officials to provide their views or information anonymously. Used properly, the “background” device gives reporters — and ultimately their readers, listeners or viewers — a chance to learn things they otherwise wouldn’t know. Used improperly, it permits officials to lead reporters into writing a misleading account — what we call spin.

Reporters ought not grant anonymity too easily, but their willingness to do so is not hard to understand. They don’t see much value in badgering reluctant sources to speak on the record. It’s easier to go along, as shown by the number of “senior administration officials” quoted in The Post and elsewhere.

One of these “senior administration officials” helped bring the Plame story to full boil. This official told Mike Allen and Dana Priest of The Post that two other unnamed senior officials were responsible for providing the identity of Wilson’s wife to those half a dozen reporters. According to this source, his (or her) colleagues passed on this information “purely and simply for revenge” after Wilson publicly revealed he had gone to Niger last year at the CIA’s request and had filed a report debunking the idea that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from that country. Why was one senior administration official implicating others? Sorry, Allen and Priest can’t say — they promised to protect the identity of their source. We find ourselves in this situation far too often.


Which brings us back to the ethical question: If a government official obtains a promise of confidentiality and discloses something like Valerie Plame’s name and job, does that violate the implicit understanding between source and journalist? Reporters often grant anonymity before they know what a source might say. This time, however, the official(s) may have abused the rituals of journalism and violated the law — perhaps inadvertently — in the zeal to fire back at Wilson. Therefore, should the reporters come forward and say what they know?


But other journalists would disagree with me. So would our lawyers, who generally insist that we must live up to our pledges of anonymity, because picking and choosing between “honest” and “dishonest” sources would ultimately harm the free flow of information. In this view, if our sources don’t have total confidence in our promises of confidentiality, they will dry up.

Which is probably why we don’t know the names of the official or officials who disclosed information about Plame.

But now there’s a criminal inquiry. Theoretically, this could change the situation. In a 1972 decision that no journalist likes, Branzburg v. Hayes, the Supreme Court concluded that “the first amendment does not relieve a newspaper reporter of the obligation that all citizens have to respond to a grand jury subpoena and answer questions relevant to a criminal investigation.”

But no administration has ever invoked the Branzburg decision in pursuing a leak investigation. No doubt they have shied away from this partly to avoid provoking America’s news organizations. Personally, I doubt that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department will try to subpoena the reporters and invoke Branzburg now. But it could.

Another caution: Those who are hoping this episode will land some official in jail should probably take a cold shower. The law against identifying covert agents is difficult to break. Only an official who has legal access to known classified information about a covert agent, and who knows that the government has taken affirmative measures to hide the agent’s identity, has violated the law.

That determination, however, can be made only after examining the evidence. If the reporters keep what they know to themselves, then the only witnesses are the very people under investigation — those unnamed senior administration officials.

That’s why this is so tricky, and so uncomfortable. Journalists believe that we grant anonymity in our quest to get a better understanding about what’s going on. Now, that anonymity is keeping you from knowing what really happened here.

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