A Gift That Keeps on Giving
When a reporter burns a source, as Michael Gallagher did, journalism itself suffers lasting consequences.
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO AJR diva Alicia C. Shepard found herself in conversation with Bob Woodward after a panel discussion at the National Press Club. They chatted about this and that, and then Lisa, who hasn't yet encountered a question she wouldn't ask, cut to the chase: So who was Deep Throat?
Woodward's response was the moral equivalent of: Are you kidding me?
Today, 27 years after Watergate, it's a good bet only Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee know the answer to Lisa's question.
Protecting a confidential source is one of journalism's sacred duties. In the pantheon of journalism sins, burning a source ranks near the top. It cuts to the very essence of what reporters do. Because in the final analysis, their word is all they have.
In a perfect world, all sources would be identified in news stories. Those who rail against unidentified sources are right about this: Information with a name attached is inherently more believable.
And there is no doubt that anonymity is granted awfully freely these days. A higher threshold--a much higher threshold--would be a good thing.
Nevertheless, purists to the contrary, it seems to me that there are important stories that would be missed if an outright ban on confidential sources were promulgated. Watergate is often cited as the classic example. But there is an abundance of stories--about corruption, about people living and working in inhuman conditions, about intelligence matters, about how policy is made--that would never come to light without confidentiality.
Because in the real world, there are instances when sources rightly feel that they would face serious reprisals, from loss of a job to physical harm, if their identities were revealed.
Which brings us to Michael Gallagher. Gallagher, you'll recall, was the lead reporter on the Cincinnati Enquirer's powerful--and quickly renounced--articles on alleged misconduct by Chiquita Brands International.
Chiquita imploded after it became known that Gallagher had been tapping into the company's voice mail system. Law enforcement authorities, not to mention Chiquita officials, weren't amused, and the reporter soon found himself facing criminal charges.
Gallagher ultimately pleaded guilty to two felony counts (see "The Chiquita Aftermath,"). In an effort to stay out of jail, he agreed to cooperate with authorities. Before long, former Chiquita lawyer George Ventura was indicted for telling reporters how to access the system.
And so last month, Gallagher found himself on the witness stand at a pretrial hearing for Ventura. He testified that protecting a confidential source is "one of the highest responsibilities a journalist has."
Then he fingered Ventura.
He was burning the source.
That's a devastating blow to journalism.
Because these things don't exist in a vacuum. They have repercussions for journalists everywhere. Isolated incidents do lasting damage.
Years after the Janet Cooke episode, the Washington Post's ombudsman would still get calls asking about a Post story, "This isn't Janet Cooke again, is it?"
High-profile instances of journalists turning their backs on promises of confidentiality are, mercifully, rare. One case took place in the early 1980s, when editors at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis' Star Tribune ordered reporters to identify an anonymous source who had provided damaging information about a political candidate. They resisted, but ultimately succumbed to their bosses and identified the tipster in their articles.
Predictably, the source promptly lost his job. He sued the papers for fraud and breach of contract. And in 1991 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the papers: The promise of anonymity was a binding legal contract.
Now a reporter who broke the law has broken a promise of confidentiality in an effort to save his own skin.
It's not a pretty picture.
It makes it just that much harder to get someone to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. And it reinforces the all-too-common view these days that journalists are simply out for themselves, that it's about career advancement, not public service.
That's particularly painful when, in fact, there are untold numbers of journalists who believe deeply in the importance of what they do, who see journalism as a calling. Judge any of the major national journalism contests, and you encounter no shortage of work fueled by the reformer's zeal.
When Chiquita unraveled, there were those who argued that the outrage against Gallagher was misplaced; that, while he may have acted improperly, his cause was just, and that the outrage should be directed against the alleged abuses he described.
But that's just the problem with journalistic shortcuts. The voice mail eavesdropping took the articles off the table. The Enquirer was forced to renounce them. Gallagher's actions resulted in just the opposite of what he had hoped to accomplish.
The same is true of his betrayal of a source. Gallagher was a respected investigative reporter, with many triumphs in his past. Yet by turning his back on Ventura, he has seriously undercut the entire craft.
It's another setback this proud but embattled profession just didn't need.