Friday, July 08, 2005

Alter's Ego

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek disgorges a few hundred self-serving words in "You Shield Us, We'll Shield You." Here's the core of Alter's argument for a federal shield law:
The Supreme Court refused [last week] to rule in the Valerie Plame case, leaving a federal judge free to jail innocent reporters. When Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc., agreed to turn over Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper's sources to the prosecutor, the chilling message to any other anonymous sources thinking of telling their stories to Time Inc. publications was clear: don't. Your identity cannot be protected. Reporters will now have to tell their confidential sources two things: (1) I'll go to jail to protect you; and (2) I'll never turn over my notes to my corporate bosses. That's not going to be very comforting to whistle-blowers (see Time's "Persons of the Year," 2002) who put their jobs on the line when they talk to the press.
Innocent or not, Matt Cooper and the other jailed reporter (Judith Miller of The New York Times) have refused to give crucial testimony in a criminal case. What puts them above the law?

Alter studiedly ignores the fact that the two reporters were asked to reveal sources in the Plame case because Plame's outing as a CIA agent, if done knowingly, was a crime. I certainly hope that the Supreme Court's refusal to consider the reporters' appeal in the Plame case will have a chilling effect on illegal disclosures.

Alter's holier-than-thou defense of the press's right to consort with criminals knows no logic:
[C]onsider that Judith Miller of The New York Times (who, unlike Cooper, is fully backed by her corporate boss) will likely go to jail soon over a story she never wrote. She simply talked to someone in the government, then did nothing.
Miller didn't simply "talk to someone in the government." She talked to someone who may have committed a crime by telling Miller something that neither Miller nor any other nor any other reporter had a right to know. The fact that Miller didn't write a story based on the information she received is beside the point. Miller, and all other reporters in the case, should be compelled to cooperate in the pursuit of justice. But Alter doesn't think so, because he's a reporter. Well, he thinks of himself as one.

Alter's scare-mongering aside, the Supreme Court's refusal to hear Miller and Cooper's appeal is unlikely to have a chilling effect on legal disclosures. For one thing, Congress has absolute power to investigate matters of its choosing and to subpoena relevant witnesses. For another thing, most whistle-blowing is born of an irrepresible desire to settle scores, which works just as much against the powers-that-be as in their favor. The Supreme Court's action in the Plame case upholds the rule of law without harming the public's so-called right to know.