We have expressed discomfort with a reporter having the absolute right to grant a source confidentiality. We do believe, however, that such confidentiality should only be abrogated in the narrowest, most carefully designed and monitored circumstances, in certain matters directly related to national security.
Judith Miller didn’t go to jail Wednesday over any such matter. The New York Times reporter, her judicial remedies exhausted, surrendered herself to federal authorities because she would not reveal a source’s identity to a federal special prosecutor.
Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is not on any national-security mission. In fact, he himself has never said what exactly he is looking for. The identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame Wilson, was leaked to news media. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak published a column naming her. Her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, had been critical of the Bush administration.
It is not Novak’s source Fitzgerald seeks, but Miller’s, as well as the source that was kept confidential by Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, also the target of the probe. While Cooper — whose source surprised him Wednesday morning by releasing him of his promise — wrote one story about Wilson, Miller had not written anything.
Many Americans rightfully look skeptically at the use of anonymous sources, and certainly the Washington press corps as a whole has abused the practice to the point where it is the norm rather than the exception. The public should expect to know who is speaking in news stories much more often than it has been.
Still, in order to get at the heart of scandal or corruption in government, in many cases the only way the media can learn of such conduct is from whistleblowers who naturally fear retribution. Their identities need to be protected so future whistleblowers can be confident that journalists who uphold that right to protection today will uphold theirs tomorrow. Otherwise the scandals and corruption will go on unchecked.
A bill in Congress would, if passed, be a federal "shield law" to provide journalists with the right to protect sources and the information they provide. The Miller case clearly shows the need for such a law.