Editorial: Eroding faith

The Valerie Plame leak investigation, one of the most bizarre sagas in recent memory, made another sharp turn Thursday when Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail, finally agreed to disclose the identity of an anonymous source before the federal grand jury. But while Miller’s actions have been widely publicized in the media, there has been very little response from the general public, which raises serious concerns about the public’s opinion of journalism and its practitioners today.

Granted, it is difficult to decipher what is happening because little information is available. However, what is clear is that Patrick J. Fitzgerald, independent counsel in charge of finding out the exact circumstances under which Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity as a CIA agent, sought Miller’s testimony. Miller repeatedly, and publicly, refused to cooperate, for which she was held in civil contempt by federal Judge Thomas F. Hogan on Oct. 1, 2004. She was sent to jail on July 7, 10 days after the Supreme Court declined to hear Miller’s appeal.

There is much dispute on the circumstances under which Miller broke her silence. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, said he gave Miller unconditional permission to testify before a grand jury about her conversations with him when she was gathering information on the validity of claims made by Joseph C. Wilson IV, a retired ambassador who accused the Bush administration of twisting truths on Iraq’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction in order to go to war. But, according to Miller and her lawyers, her decision to testify only came after Libby gave an explicit, voluntary permission for Miller to talk to the grand jury regarding her conversations with him. They have said that Libby’s release came under the threat of losing his job.

It is unclear just how much Fitzgerald has uncovered, but the facts will soon be revealed as the grand jury is set to expire on Oct. 28. Two lawyers who have spoken to the independent counsel while representing witnesses involved in the investigation have speculated that Fitzgerald is attempting to gather enough evidence to charge several White House officials, including Libby and Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff, of a criminal conspiracy. This would require Fitzgerald to prove that at least two or more officials proactively attempted to damage the credibility of Wilson’s assertion as well as punish him by revealing the identity of his wife.

Regardless of Fitzgerald’s aim, his means of coercing journalists to reveal their sources by putting them behind bars raises serious questions. While journalists do not enjoy a legal privilege to withhold identity of those they come in contact with while performing their duties, unlike medical personnel, lawyers and priests, it is nevertheless true that anonymity is sometimes the only way to report serious wrongdoings. Miller and Libby’s fate will surely give second thoughts to not only reporters but the sources as well.

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It is true that a federal shield law will at least provide some protection for reporters, and there have been movements at Capitol Hill to create such a law. The most alarming fact, however, is that there has been virtually no reaction from the general public despite the public outcries by journalists and the prominent coverage of Miller’s situation. Reporters who are supposed to be representing the interests of the people are being imprisoned, yet there has been no perceptive outrage from those who ostensibly have benefited from the works of reporters. This can only mean one thing: the public’s trust in the news media is eroding. The constant, haphazard use of anonymous sources by reporters covering the nation’s capital certainly doesn’t help solve the problem.

In many respects, the news media has strayed from its original purpose. The mere fact that it is often referred “the fourth estate” itself is symptomatic of the problem. In the end, journalists are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the public, putting their readers, viewers or listeners’ interest first and foremost before anything else. The media should never be considered part of the establishment or possess an agenda for its own benefit. Journalists and other members of the media who consider themselves as something bigger than messengers of information, or think they’re part of something above and beyond the general public should start looking for different jobs.

As declared numerous times by the Supreme Court, the press enjoys rights no greater than that of the public. All members of the media need to realize they are citizens, first and foremost. And it must also be remembered that the media enjoys no explicit mandate of the public, since the public has no direct way to hold the newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations accountable. Only through an earnest effort to serve the interests of the public will the press’s rights be of any value.

It’s time for all members of the press to do a little soul searching to see where they have lost their way.