Hardly Journalism’s Finest Hour

Among all the possible scenarios to be played out in the Valerie Plame CIA-leak investigation, the one that always seemed most likely has come to pass. Reporter Judith Miller will write a book.

Karl Rove might skate and Lewis Libby may scoot — and Dick Cheney likely can pull a plausible-deniability card from his sleeve. But the Miller Lite of confidential-sources martyrdom was the wire-to-wire constant. She will take a leave from the New York Times to work on her version of who winked, nodded and said what to whom. Probably include some major musings on the First Amendment as well as a first person peek inside the Alexandria Detention Center. Larry King will doubtless get the first promotional pop.

But it won’t be a tell-all tome. That’s because she doesn’t remember all. For example, she maintains (in a recent New York Times piece) that she “didn’t think” she got Plame’s name first from Scooter Libby. She wrote: “I said (in grand jury testimony) I believed the information came from another source whom I could not recall.”

Oh.

Maybe it will be revealed in her book.

No less fundamental to Miller’s credibility outsourcing is the question about the timing of the waiver of confidentiality that Miller received from Libby, Vice President Cheney’s top aide. Libby’s lawyer says the waiver had been there all along. Miller actually had a chance to clear that up at a news conference but punted the question back to her lawyer who passed.

However you rationalize and nuance it, how many people would have opted for nearly three months of contempt-of-court slammer time without exhausting all recourse? Who wouldn’t have checked to make sure a (White House) source – not to be confused with a revenge-wary, conscience-stricken whistle-blower — really wanted you jailed?

Unless 85 days of down time at the detention center was a career move.

Unless journalistic “martyrdom” was the ticket that would override the humiliation of being told by your executive editor that you were off the Iraq-and-WMD beat because some of your reporting turned out to be, well, wrong. Recall that Miller had allowed herself to be a conduit for Almad Chalabi, the exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress, who had been feeding her self-serving, faux intelligence about Saddam Hussein and WMD. Miller aided and abetted the rush to war, if you will.

The Fourth Estate didn’t need this case. To many Americans, the media’s societal standing rivals that of FEMA cronies and telemarketers.

However unique and critical its calling, the press – which has its own amendment, the 1st – is still not above the law. There is no exemption that permits journalists to ignore a good faith subpoena in a criminal case.

The lesson yet to be learned is this: If you’re going to the mattresses over a protected source, it better be seen as an ethical stand for a greater good. However, when the confidential source is no whistle-blower, but an agenda-driven Administration operative, the moral high ground becomes an ethical sinkhole.

And for those keeping score, chances for a federal shield law for reporters and their sources has rarely looked so remote. So be it.

Perhaps Miller could devote an entire chapter to that.

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