What's in a Name?

July 7, 2005

I always follow news about news. Being in the biz, I'm inherently interested in this kind of thing. I don't know if the general public finds this as interesting as I do. Probably not. But I think it should. I often encounter people who are grossly uninformed about what it is that journalists do, and the unwritten code of ethics we follow. People have asked me if I would pay to interview them or if they could review a story before it went to print. In both cases, the answer is never. It seems so obviously wrong to me for either to happen. Sometimes I'm offended by such requests. Is that what you think of us? That we would pay you for a story? How am I supposed to get the truth if the motivation to talk to me is cash?

Now, granted, people probably hear all the time about other folks selling their stories. (Newsflash: journalists do not buy stories. The entertainment industry does.) And granted, people have other motivations to talk to reporters, and sometimes it's for personal gain.

And yeah, it's not like every reporter follows the same guidelines and that some don't do unethical things (hello Jason Blair). It's not like they hand you a book when you graduate from journalism school that lists the do's and don't. It's not that black and white. Ethics never are. Hell, you don't even have to go to J school to be a journalist. This is not a profession like medicine or law, though some people like to think of it that way.

But I'd like to think the general public understands that the point of reporting is to seek the truth. And that while it is impossible for reporters and editors to be completely unbiased and impartial, that we strive for fairness. And in striving for fairness and the truth, we follow certain notions of what is ethical.

And I think it's unethical to reveal a confidential source. I suppose the judge in this case, Thomas Hogan, has a valid point too, which is that journalists are not above the law and have no greater rights than anyone else when called upon to testify in court. But if journalists start doing that, how can people trust reporters anymore if they become conduits to the government to gather information?

I don't like using confidential sources -- it's always better to use a name -- but sometimes you have to, because the source is a whistleblower, or maybe because making the peron's name public would endanger them. I've promised gang members, immigrants and other people that I would never reveal their names.

I think if I were in Judith Miller's shoes, I would do the same thing and refuse to testify, even if it meant a stint in jail. And even if it meant, as is possible in this case, that revealing sources would prove that the Bush Administration had leaked information to get back at a former U.S. Ambassador who had publically criticized it days before. Either way you look at it the government is trying to use the press (government leaks info to press, government tries to compell press to to talk and get info). Not an easy situation. Judith Miller's taking a stand. We should all be grateful.

Contributor: 

Melissa Hung

Founding Editor

Melissa Hung is the founding editor of Hyphen. She was the editor in chief for the magazine's first five years and went on to serve in many other leadership roles on the staff and board for more than a decade. She is a writer and freelance journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, Longreads, and Catapult, among others. A native Texan, she lives in California. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Comments

Comments

I hate to quibble (especially with Melissa for whom I have tremendous respect), but I think this case is a little more complicated than the New York Times (and Time magazine) would like us to believe.While most thoughtful people strongly support the general idea of a free press, the specifics of Judith Miller's situation suggest that we should look elsewhere for a champion.For example, for the story in question, we are not talking about an expose into government or corporate corruption. We are talking about (suspected) vicious "payback" from Karl Rove. Growing evidence points to the leak about Valerie Plame as retaliation/disciplining/muffling of former ambassador Joseph Wilson who had persuasively discounted the Bush administration's WMD "case" against Iraq. The reporters in question had been enthusiastic cheerleaders and participants of the Whitehouse PR machinery.While Judith Miller had not, in fact, published the article after receiving the same "leak," she is far from innocent. It may have escaped public memory by now, but she was one of the most important (if not the most important) partners in the Bush administration's PR campaign. Miller was the one who had mysteriously received a timely "leak" about "evidence" of aluminum tubes, for example, and had trumpeted it as unquestionable fact.Yet another thing to consider is that the principle of "free speech" has never been an automatic, blanket shield extending to the confidentiality of sources for any profession, including journalism. As has been pointed out by some (across the political spectrum), a journalist who participates in the committing of a crime is not above the law. It is arguable that exposing an American agent is a national security crime. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the unveiling of a CIA operative will be dutifully prosecuted as a crime (probably contingent on the degree of interference by the Bush administration).Altogether, I am inclined to suspect much less noble ideas motivating Judith Miller's decision to go to jail. She's afraid of the consequences of "biting the hand that feeds her." Am I the only one who can imagine that she has weighed the pros and cons and realized that for a few months of soft jail time, she'll have herself of her earlier sins, joined journalism's pantheon of mythical heroes, get a six figure book (and film) deal, grab one of those coveted public policy/democratic media fellowships (e.g., Harvard or Columbia), all the while giving one more demonstration of loyalty to the Rove administration.I think we need to balance our support of abstract ideals with our support of justice and ethics (beyond "journalistic ethics). Are we willing to extend this blind protection to the racist hacks in the New York Times who had aggressively and knowingly used flimsy "leaks" from shady sources to unjustly accuse (and convict) Wen Ho Lee of being a Chinese spy?
Oops. I'd like to make some corrections to my last post: My second last paragraph contained an unforgivable number of mistakes. Here it is again, hopefully a little more coherent (such as it is):...Altogether, I am inclined to suspect that much less noble ideas are motivating Judith Miller's decision to go to jail. She's afraid of the consequences of "biting the hand that feeds her." Am I the only one who can imagine that she has weighed the pros and cons and realized that, for a few months of soft jail time, she'll get to purge herself of her earlier sins, join journalism's pantheon of mythical heroes, get a six figure book (and film) deal, and grab one of those coveted public policy/democratic media fellowships (e.g., Harvard or Columbia), all the while giving one more demonstration of loyalty to the Rove administration?
I don't think the fact that this story isn't about government corruption should affect the question at hand: should the reporter be compelled by law to give up the source? I've written stories not involving corruption or whistle blowing with anonymous sources. True, this is not the most noble case of protecting a source, but we shouldn't begin to qualify. (If it's this kind of story... then this is OK, if its' that kind of story, that's not OK.)Do I want to see Karl Rove taken down? Yes. Am I happy about the fact that the reports in questions were cheerleaders of Whitehouse PR? Nope.But I am afraid of what will happen to the profession should it be OK to jail reporters, even in a questionable case like this, if access to a source is refused.
As I suspected a while back, Judith Miller's case had nothing to do with protecting sources. Judith Miller needs to be punished because she betrayed her country (not in the shallow, stupid sense that Dubya and company yaps about) as well as her profession.http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1599200,00.html