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Tuesday, July 12, 2005
 
"Source" vs. "Criminal"

While talking about the Rove/Plame/Cooper/Miller situation to a co-worker, she kept saying that, regardless of what happened to Plame/Wilson as a result of the leak, and regardless of Rove's motivations, it was a Bad Thing that journalists could be legally compelled to give up their sources. After a number of attempts to explain why the pressure on Cooper and Miller was entirely justified, I came upon the following example:

Let's say you're a reporter interviewing Karl Rove in his office. He points to the corner behind you in which there is a baby with a small bomb attached to it, and says "This is completely off the record, but if I were to say a certain word, beginning with the letter x, that bomb would go off and kill that baby." You ponder for a moment what possible use there could be for voice-activated baby-killing bomblets, and then Rove blurts out, "Xylophone." Boom. Dead baby.

You get up to leave, shaken and horrified, and at the door Rove winks at you and says, "Remember, off the record."

For whatever reason, Rove doesn't hide the body or interfere with the evidence in any way. As the days go by and you are trying to decide what to do, the FBI announces they're 100% sure that: the bomb was in fact of a well-known type that can only be triggered by saying a specific word; that there was in fact a baby attached to it; and that the baby was killed by the explosion. In other words, that a murder had definitely been committed.

Very soon thereafter you are visited by FBI agents, who say that you are known to have been in Rove's office at the time the explosion took place. Do you tell them what happened, or are you obligated to keep what Rove said in confidence?
She got it then. The mere fact that the Plame leak involved words passing from a governmental official (or anyone, for that matter) to a reporter is not sufficient by itself to make the communication subject to journalistic privilege. What Rove is alleged to have said to those reporters is every bit as much of a crime as blowing up that baby. It's every bit as much of a crime as taking out a gun and shooting someone. There is no journalistic privilege that pertains to a reporter who witnesses a crime.

I know this topic has been done to death, but, in the spirit of Plame Made Simple, I thought I'd do my bit to cut through some of the bullshit that Rove's defenders in the administration and the press have kicked up over the issue.

The part I don't get is that the press itself fails to understand the distinction between source and criminal. Everywhere you turn, someone is lamenting the chilling effect Plamegate will ultimately have on freedom of the press. Unless freedom of the press is about enabling anonymous criminals to break the law in in front of reporters, there should be no effect from this case whatever.

One of journalists' main jobs is to expose criminal activity, especially in the government. Journalistic privilege exists to a great extent to protect whistleblowers from retribution while at the same time enabling the press to bring out evidence of wrongdoing. Reporters make use of thousands of confidential sources every day. Apparently many of them do so without even knowing what a source is.