Should the Journalists Talk?
Reports on the Plame Affair say six journalists - two print, four broadcast - were shopped the story that Bob Novak eventually printed, the one that reveals the identity of a woman said to be a covert CIA operative of some sort. Glenn Reynolds, who is a lawyer, says Novak and the others ought to be subpoenaed and asked to name the source (or sources).
Subpoena him and the other reporters. Find out what happened. If somebody leaked, fire 'em. It's easy and it's fast, and it's legal. What's wrong with this idea? Why have a special rule for the press? Who else is allowed to go around saying that they have knowledge of a crime but won't talk?For what it's worth, I agree with Glenn - and I'm a journalist.
You can't have a special rule on this for journalists, because journalists don't have special First Amendment rights, and anyway everyone is a journalist now, thanks to the Internet. This will be disturbing to professional journalists, but I don't see an alternative. And this is a national security leak, in wartime, right?
But here's the flip side of the issue: Should those six journalists voluntarily come forward and tell what they know - and burn the source? It's an interesting question. On CNN tonight, the insufferable Aaron Brown was asking the unavoidable David Gergen why the journalists hadn't already done stories about how someone was shopping the Wilson/Plame story around. But Brown assumes that all six of the reporters (or seven? - it isn't clear if Novak is one of the six) knew that other reporters also had been offered the story. If you are one of the six reporters, but you don't know about any of the others, there's just no way credible way to write the story. You can't write that the administration (or whoever-I'm guessing the CIA has dirty hands) is leaking a story that criminally blows a CIA covert operative's cover because you have no proof. All you have is your word that someone leaked the information to you. If you name the source, in a story accusing them of a crime, they can deny it - and sue you for libel. Unless you have tapes or an email - and I can't imagine the leaker was that stupid - you have no proof.
And if you don't name the source, all you have is a zero-source, first-person accusation with no evidence to back it up. No editor in their right mind would allow it to be published.
Now, though, the six reporters all know they aren't alone. The dynamic has changed. If the six work for six competing news organizations - I'm betting they do - then there is intense competition under way right now to break the story by finding the secondary sources and confirming evidence to expose the leaker. The problem is, the confirming sources are the other, rival, journalists. I suspect that, right now, there's a delicate dance going on in the executive suites of two major newspapers (NYT? WaPo?) and four news networks (CNN? Fox? NBC/MSNBC? ABC? CBS?) as each seeks to convince two of the others to collaborate on breaking the story and exposing the leaker.
Of course, the "leaker" could be merely a talkative idiot who didn't know Plame was a covert operative. As Jonah Goldberg remarks, "Wilson's wife is a desk jockey and much of the Washington cocktail circuit knew that already." If, as Goldberg and Clifford May assert, Plame's identity and work were already well known, there may really be no big story to tell.