Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Time Magazine Editor-in-Chief Doesn't Lose His Cool, Makes Sound Argument For Using Anonymous Sources

It almost goes without saying that journalists are frequently too defensive. As soon as criticism rises, as it's been doing of late, too many journalists go into disorderly retreat. I don't think that's a very good way to defend the First Amendment.

Newsweek, in particular, since the Koran-to-the-toilet allegations it made and later retracted, has gone much too far toward abandoning more ground than it need give up by saying that it made a mistake in that case. Now, it's adopting much greater apparent restrictions on the use of anonymous sources in the future than are merited by the present situation. They seem to have fooled themselves into thinking they are Wendy's and a customer has just found a finger in their chili.

I am much more impressed by the strong, definite language used this week in a note in Time magazine to the readers by Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of Time, Inc.

Pearlstine seems to realize what a disaster it would be for the media, for the First Amendment and for the American people, if use of anonymous sources were to be dropped and he is not on the retreat. To the contrary, Time is taking its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Let me quote Pearlstine at some length, because (1) I agree with him and (2) he has spoken as well on this matter as anyone.

"It is our editorial policy," he writes, to identify sources by name whenever possible. But sometimes we can obtain information only by promising confidentiality to a source, because many persons with important information won't speak to the press unless they are assured anonymity. Information given in confidence is especially valuable when it contradicts or undermines public positions asserted by government or powerful individuals or corporations. Without confidential sourcing, the public would never have learned the details of many situations vital to its interests, from Watergate, to Enron, to Abu Ghraib."

Pearlstine goes on to say that Time has gone to the Supreme Court and is asking that it rule that its Washington correspondent Matt Cooper "may not be jailed and Time Inc. may not be fined for refusing to disclose confidential sources to a federal grand jury.

"The District of Columbia and 49 states now protect confidential sources," Pearlstine observes. "We think those protections strongly support our contention that the First Amendment (which protects freedom of the press) and common law should be held to extend the reporter's privilege to federal cases.

"We believe the Supreme Court should recognize a reporter's privilege under federal rules of evidence adopted since 1972--rules that have led federal courts to recognize a psychotherapist-patient privilege, a spousal privilege, a cleric-communicant privilege and many others.

"We argue further that jailing or fining a witness based on secret evidence submitted by the prosecutor violates a constitutional right to due process. The Supreme Court held last year that accused enemy combatants have a right to confront the evidence against them. We cannot understand how journalists doing their jobs should be denied that same basic right.

"We believe we must protect our sources when we grant them confidentiality, an obligation we take seriously. We also believe we must resist government coercion. Put simply, the issues at stake are crucial to our ability to report the news and inform the public. We hope the Supreme Court will hear our case and rule in our favor. As it said many years ago, freedom of the press was established 'not for the benefit of the press so much as for the benefit of all of us.'"

This confirms my long-held opinion that Time is superior to Newsweek. Here, we see, Newsweek is running for cover, and Time is defending the interests of the American people.

I think also that Stephen Engelberg, an editor at the Portland Oregonian, was right when he told the New York Times today, "Right now, the pendulum is swinging too far in the wrong direction. Most newspapers, if they are honest, would say that all of this taken together has probably created a climate that is not encouraging for the type of reporting that we need to be doing."

A salute to Pearlstine and Engelberg. They point everyone in journalism in the right direction. And where exactly is the Los Angeles Times in this fight?


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