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From AJR,   August/September 2005

In Praise of Judith Miller   

The controversial reporter is doing the right thing.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

Judith Miller is an American hero.

Forget Ahmed Chalabi and all of those off-target stories about Saddam's WMD. When crunch time came, Miller hung tough.

Not for her the cave-in of Time Inc. honcho Norm Pearlstine, who gave up Time reporter Matt Cooper's notes. Not for her the last-minute "waiver" route that Cooper took in deciding to testify before the grand jury investigating who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The New York Times reporter had promised a source confidentiality. And that was that. If the choice was breaking that promise or going to jail, the slammer was Miller's only option.

Anonymous sources have had their ups and downs, and right now attacking them is about as risky as badmouthing al Qaeda. But let's not lose sight of the fact that, used properly, they are very important weapons in the journalistic arsenal.

The most obvious instance is in the case of whistleblowers who alert journalists to situations that harm the public, but who fear reprisals if they talk on the record. The unmasking of Deep Throat was a vivid reminder of just how valuable these shadowy figures can be.

But they are also critical in covering the intelligence community, or private companies, or even the government. People are often much more candid when they have the protection of anonymity.

Have unidentified sources been radically overused in recent years? Yes. Are the efforts by many news organizations to rein them in worthwhile? Of course.

But as Frank McCulloch--a former top editor at the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Examiner and one of the most astute journalists of our era--told the San Francisco Chronicle, "If the ability to protect a source is gone, inevitably sources won't talk. And everybody loses."

Miller's bold stance has provoked a decidedly mixed reaction, some of it downright hostile, even mean-spirited. There's no doubt she's a controversial figure. Miller rightly has become a poster child for the U.S. media's pathetic performance on the WMD issue. And her elbows-out style hasn't made her the most popular kid in class.

Then there's the fact that she's not protecting some noble citizen, a Karen Silkwood out to rescue the public. Nope, she has gone to jail on behalf of someone who was sleazily smearing (and perhaps endangering) a CIA operative to score cheap political points.

Some of those who think Miller should testify argue that there's a difference between safeguarding the confidentiality of a "good" source and selling out a "bad" one. That's simply a nonstarter. First of all, the ranks of valuable informants, for journalists as well as law enforcement officials, are not filled exclusively by saints. A lot of important stories are revealed by those in the belly of the beast.

Consider the case of Deep Throat. Did W. Mark Felt spend all that quality time with Bob Woodward in the Rosslyn parking garage because he was worried about the future of the republic, or because he was fighting for bureaucratic turf, or because he was mad that L. Patrick Gray got the job he wanted? Who knows? Maybe all three.

More important, a pledge of confidentiality is just that, a pledge. It can't be broken willy-nilly just because keeping it is uncomfortable, or because the guy who received it isn't politically correct.

Because make no mistake: If prosecutors continue to put the squeeze on journalists--and all the signs suggest they will--and journalists bail out on sources, lots of important information will dry up. If sources can't be confident they'll be protected, they won't come forward. And the losers will be, no, not the journalists, but the public.

So props to Judy Miller and the New York Times, which has supported her decision so steadfastly. Journalism--and the American people--owe you a major debt.