Wednesday, September 29, 2004

On leaks, bias and truth

Justoneminute notes that the Plame/Wilson leak investigation hasn't turned out like the press had hoped. Safire lays on the bombast and trots out the usual justifications.
The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before.
Leaks, for good or ill, are an integral part of modern journalism. Without them the Times, CBS, and Newsweek would publish fewer stories of much shorter length. Investigative journalism as it is now practiced could not exist. So leaks make news and, thus, generate information.

But, as Edward Jay Epstein* noted his book Deception, they do so while withholding critical information about context, the motivations for the disclosure, and the professional competence of the person making the statements.

In short, while they generate information, they may not add anything to the store of knowledge; they may, in fact, subtract from it. Amb. Wilson's leaks, after all, created a false picture of pre-war intelligence and the honesty of the current administration. We do not know if the "Pentagon sources" telling Hersh that Iraq is the new Vietnam are the same people who told him in October 2001 that Afghanistan was the new Vietnam.

As Epstein also points out, journalism's reliance on leaks separates it from traditional scholarly disciplines where the search for truth is inextricably tied to the explicit discussion of sources and methods.
Only two forms of knowledge cross this principle: gossip and journalism. The gossip purposely obscures his sources, saying in effect, 'Don't ask who I heard it from,' to make the story more titillating. The journalist obscures his sources out of self-interest, claiming that unless he hides their identities, they will not provide him with further information. This claim assumes the sources are acting out of altruistic motives. If, however, they are providing the information out of self-interest-- and much information comes from publicists and other paid agents-- then their motive is part of the story.

I've never understood the journalistic argument for concealing sources except that it is self-serving. While a source might talk more freely if he need take no responsibility for what he says, he also has far less incentive to be completely truthful. The only check on the source's license to commit hyperbole, if not slander, under these rules is the journalist himself. But the very premise of concealing sources is that the journalist needs the cooperation of the source in the future. This makes the journalist himself an interested party.
One of the ways the ideological bias of journalists manifests itself is in their decision to focus on either the leak or the story. They care about the disclosure of Plame's status as a CIA officer; they didn't care about the illegal release of Linda Tripp's personnel records by a Clinton political appointee. The timing of the Berger revelations is a matter of grave concern; the motivation of those who gave the Abu Ghraib photos to Seymour Hersh is a matter of indifference. The Pentagon sources warning us of a new Vietnam are treated as pure truth-tellers; no one asks if they are evidence of a defeatist coterie who are mired in the mindset of 1968.

Bias can also be a factor in how other journalists treat the "scoop." Both Bill Gertz and Sy Hersh have many talkative contacts in the Pentagon. The rest of the MSM is ignorant about those source's identity, credibility, and competence. Nevertheless, ABC or the LA Times are far more likely to run with a Hersh story that one by Gertz.

Why? How can the reader/viewer be certain that this has nothing to do with Hersh's reflexive anti-Rumsfeld slant or Gertz's pro-brass slant?

Epstein also hones in on some murky ethical questions.

By concealing the machinations and politics behind a leak, journalists suppress part of the truth surrounding a story. Thus, the means by which the medical records of Senator Thomas Eagleton were acquired and passed on to the Knight newspapers (which won the 1973 Pulitizer Prize for disclosing information contained in these records) seems no less important than the senator's medical history itself, especially since copies of the illegally obtained records were later found in the White House safe of John Ehrlichman.
We agree that it was wrong for Ehrlichman to possess the records and wrong for him to share them with ANYONE. Yet, the journalism profession celebrated the reporters who told millions about Eagleton's psychiatric history. Reconciling those positions requires a level of sophisticated (and sophistic) reasoning that makes angels dancing on pins look like child's play by comparison.

In many cases, acceptance of leaked material compromises reporters. To protect their source and to ensure future scoops, they tacitly agree to ignore part of the story. They have the privilege of revealing that Candidate A had a mistress who bore him a son and that Candidate B was addicted to cocaine. What they cannot reveal is that Candidate C is employing a stable of private detectives to did up dirt on the opposition. Those detectives, after all, are the source of the headline-grabbing stories.

When a reporter uses an anonymous source, it is implied that it is dangerous for him/her to speak out publicly. This usually casts the other side-- the nonleaker-- in an unfavorable light. The target of the leak is not just wrong-- they are engaged in a cover-up and are prepared to retaliate against their opponents. However, we have only the source's word for this. A crucial part of the story-- the part that adds drama-- has to be accepted on faith.

Increasingly we see another type of murkiness from the widespread use of leaks. They are defended because they help the pursuit of truth. But when the leak itself becomes the issue, journalist's refusal to reveal sources becomes a barrier to truth: it prolongs a controversy that could be put to bed quickly.

In the Plame 'outing' or the revelation of the Berger investigation the big question is "who told?" This might be more important than the specific information conveyed to reporters. The conventions of journalism are a huge obstacle to answering that question.

Former Army intelligence officer Col. Stuart A. Herrington made an astute observation in his book Traitor's Among Us:
In the unique world occupied by our media colleagues, trusted government civil servants who betray sensitive information are First Amendment heroes.
He speaks from experience. He nearly had a years-long investigation blown apart because some one leaked news of it to the New York Times.

It is another strange bit of reasoning: A reliable and trustworthy source is someone willing to break trust with his or her colleagues and betray the confidences of their friends.

* Epstein's book, Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism is out of print. It is well worth picking up a used copy.

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