Thursday, July 07, 2005

Reporters’ Right to Remain Silent

In the referenced commentary, Ellis Hennican makes the case for allowing reporters to keep confidential sources and cites his own first experience, back in high school, of having a teacher as a confidential source in a story that involved an undercover policeman posing as a high school student.

This whole situation comes about as part of a White House investigation into who revealed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. Her husband, Joseph Wilson, is a former U.S. ambassador and well-known critic of the war in Iraq, and several parties have claimed that members of the Bush administration publicized Plame’s identity in retaliation for her husband’s outspoken, negative opinion of the war in Iraq.

The use of confidential sources is a Pandora’s box. We generally rely on reporters and their confidential sources to reveal stories that otherwise would not see the light of day. Corporate and government corruption is one common scenario. Environmental or safety hazards due to defective products are another. If everyone who had knowledge of these situations knew that they had no promise of confidentiality, we would never find out about several cases where reformation was required because informants would be too frightened by the threat of retaliation.

On the other hand, we have situations where the press is used as a smear tool, sometimes unwittingly. Given the well-known liberal bias prevalent in mainstream media, we wind up with situations like Rathergate where CBS quickly snapped up a story detrimental to the Bush administration but failed to sufficiently check their facts (of course, it didn’t help that Rather himself disregarded overwhelming evidence of forgery). And let’s not forget Newsweek’s unsubstantiated report about guards abusing the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.

Confidential government/military information has also been revealed to the public eye. There are situations in which this should take place, such as in the government experiments where U.S. military members were exposed to atomic radiation or blacks infected with syphilis were allowed to die untreated. But there are also investigations and military operations that should not be revealed, especially where they concern national security, such as letting the world know how we were able to tell where Osama bin Laden did some of his broadcasts. When such facts are revealed it makes it that much easier for criminals and enemies to escape, harm our forces, and kill our citizens.

I know there are a lot of silent readers out there but I’d like to hear other takes on this issue. What’s your take on the pros and/or cons of reporters’ use of confidential sources?


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