The Rout Is On  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   April/May 2005

The Rout Is On   

And its open season on journalists.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Who should be writing this story? It's surreal enough for Samuel Beckett, that's for sure, but he's been gone awhile now. There's enough hypocrisy and pathos to interest Arthur Miller, but he just exited stage right. Given all the fear and loathing, it would seem a natural for Hunter Thompson, but, well, I hear Hunter has left the building too.

The story, of course, is the government's "case" against Judy Miller of the New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time. A source calls them up with cynical information that they do nothing with. Now they face the very real prospect of jail time--for doing the right thing.

Meantime, the guy who gratuitously outed a CIA operative is running around with what seems to be nary a care in the world. Obviously I'm not privy to the federal grand jury probing the Valerie Plame leak, so maybe in reality columnist Robert Novak is being hounded and threatened and deposed. But the signs don't suggest that.

In athletic contests there often comes a moment when one side knows it has the other on its heels. At such times, true aggressors pour it on, burying their opponents so deeply there's no chance they can get back up.

That's what it feels like today in the matter of the government versus the press. (see "Under Fire," February/March 2005.)

The nation's ascendant conservative elements won their power fair and square. Now they are aggressively advancing their political agenda, and that's fair too. That's the way the game is played.

What troubles me is the part of their playbook that advocates open season on journalists.

And the rout is on. States shrink access to public records and meetings. Judges dilute longstanding shield conventions. Emboldened prosecutors hunt for sources by threatening journalists with jail. How bad is it? A major newspaper of myacquaintance recently held a newsroom meeting so that its editors and lawyers could school staffers in such skills as phoning sources without the precise extension being documented. There are times when you can't be too paranoid.

If you're a journalist, don't wait for the public to ride to your rescue--not when studies consistently find that the public doesn't particularly believe in the First Amendment. You may think yourself the public's surrogate, but the public views the press as just another no-account institution out for its own interest. So we can assume they like what's happening to Matt Cooper and Judy Miller, and that they might well support my own governor, Bob Ehrlich, in his current campaign again the Baltimore Sun.

And the truth is, we journalists bear a lot of responsibility for this sorry state. We have seen some spectacular ethical lapses, which further erode media credibility.We have arrogance issues. And I think it's essentially true that we are out of sync with Middle America's values and mores.

What's the answer? I don't know, but I don't think it's a federal shield law. Such an animal would be weaker than many states now afford. Nor am I saying the press should have a blanket privilege. Journalists are not priests, and there are times when they should comply with prosecution requests. But more often are the times they shouldn't, lest they be turned into an arm of law enforcement. The press' First Amendment protection is only good if it's actually being protected.

What we mostly need are some brave judges to rise up and say, "Hey, I know you may not like the messenger, but you can't shoot him. He really is looking out for you."

***

I've never met Dan Rather. With his Dust Bowl aphorisms and "What's the frequency?" moments, he has always struck me as peculiar in the extreme. He no doubt overstayed his welcome in the CBS News anchor chair, and given the schadenfreude emanating from West 52nd Street since his tumble, I gather he was not exactly a beloved leader. Besides, I have never completely trusted a grown man who, la Jimmy Carter, suddenly starts parting his hair on the other side, as Rather did some time ago.

But for half a century Rather has been a vigorous, relentless and intrepid journalist, neither impressed nor cowed by powerful people. Yes, he fell in love with a story, a phenomenon any journalist knows about, and he made a big mistake. But it would be a shame if that error overshadows his considerable body of work.

Eccentric to the end, Rather ended his final broadcast with the signature phrase, "Courage." Courage is something Dan Rather has in spades. It is something every working journalist needs, especially today.

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