The Magazine

Sending Reporters to Jail?

Don't be tempted, it's a terrible idea.

Jul 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 41 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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JUDITH MILLER OF THE New York Times has been sent to jail for refusing to reveal the anonymous source who told her (and presumably told the whole damn world via Robert Novak's syndicated column) that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA agent. Never mind that Miller's source has probably been revealed already. Matt Cooper of Time was threatened with the same penalty for the same reason, and Time editor in chief Norman Pearlstine prostrated himself before special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald like a deficit hawk Republican congressman summoned into the presence of a George W. Bush budget. And never mind that Judith Miller never wrote anything. For all we know Miller was interested in Plame because Miller was working on a "Secret Soufflés of the Spies" feature for one of those ever-proliferating New York Times "Home," "Style," "Food," "Home-Style Food" sections. Also never mind about the cover that Valerie Plame was using as a covert CIA agent at the time Novak's column was published. It was a masterpiece of hiding in plain sight. It would have inspired The Purloined Letter if Edgar Allan Poe hadn't already written it and been dead for 154 years. Plame was working a desk job at CIA headquarters. Furthermore, never mind that the secret identities of CIA covert agents are, in my experience as a foreign reporter, one and the same as the secret identities of Superman, Batman, and Robin: Everybody knows except for a few designated comic book characters. (Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the Federal District Court, who sent Miller to jail in this case, comes to mind.) And, lastly, never mind that there are lofty principles involved--statutory principles, litigational principles, constitutional principles, plus something even loftier than these, something that is above the law, namely the National Basketball Association. Thus spake the NBA: "No harm, no foul."

But put that all aside. Forget morals, ethics, and common sense. I wish to speak here directly to politicos, to all the holders of public trust--legislative, judicial, and executive--who form, construe, and discharge the policies of our great nation. Listen up, scallywags. You do not want to put journalists in jail.

Sure, you politicians get mad at us. All that "speaking truth to power" blather must grate upon the nerves. Plus we are allowed to receive free tickets to Nationals games and you aren't. But is sending us to the big house a wise revenge? Imprisoning a journalist on grounds that exude even the faintest whiff of the First Amendment is to guarantee that journalist a seven-figure book advance and a movie deal. Judith Miller will emerge from incarceration with vast financial resources. If she wants, she'll be able to make huge campaign donations. Get on the wrong side of an ex-con news scribe and you could find your next political opponent funded like Hillary-come-to-Jesus. (It is we journalists who've been busting you politicians on campaign finance violations for years. We know all the work-arounds.)

And sure, we journalists get mad at you politicians. But we're wimps. All we do is write Frank Rich-type snide op-eds. Prison might toughen us up. At press conferences will you still be giving the same lame, evasive answers when you know the press corps can turn its ballpoints into deadly shivs?

Speaking of such, as a politician you very well may go to prison. A lot of politicians seem to. Do you want journalists to have been there first? We're friendly types, able to get along well with low-lifes--after all we cover politics. We will have been spending our time in the can telling large, angry people with elaborate tattoos how you voted against prison reform initiatives, called for federally mandated minimum sentences for mopery and loitering, and sponsored legislation to require that public defenders be drawn from the bottom 10 percent of law school graduates and paid the minimum wage.

And, whether you are stuck in the hoosegow or perched upon the seat of power, never forget that we can make your life a living hell. Oh, not the way we think we can with a six-part investigative series, innuendo-filled opinion pieces, or, for that matter, anonymous sources. But we can forget about you. You can just slip our mind and never be mentioned in the media again. Then where will you be? Start composing your "Where Am I Now?" item for the Washington Post's "In the Loop" column now.

Meanwhile you're probably an anonymous source yourself. Most politicians are, sooner or later. Well, next time you want to leak something, try calling Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And before you attempt to send any more journalists to jail for failing to reveal their anonymous sources, remember what happens to anonymous sources after they quit being anonymous. Do you want to go down in history as "Deep Throat"?

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of Peace Kills (Atlantic Monthly Press).