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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The impact testifying has on journalism

John Dickerson is in the courtroom covering the trial for Slate when suddenly his name is mentioned from the witness in the box (Ari Fleischer) and his visage projected across the big screen in the courtroom.

His name is on the potential witness list. What does he do now? Should he recuse himself from covering the trial? His name is mentioned in connection to his work with Time magazine. Does it matter that he's at a different news organization now?

While bloggers, journalists and news junkies ponder some of these big-picture questions, the public seems to care little for the big and little aspects of the Scooter Libby trial. Here in Cleveland, the trial hasn't warranted coverage before A4 and today's AP story about former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's testimony yesterday trickled down the gutter. Though I'm certain Vice President Dick Cheney's testimony would warrant front-page coverage.

Regardless of how it's playing in the heartland, this is a huge story in Washington where the compulsion to know something before anyone else drives all else. Outside the Beltway it seems to have less significance.

"You would have to talk to 30 people to find one who knows who Scooter Libby is," says Lincoln D. Bandlow, an media law attorney with Fox Spillane Shaeffer in Los Angeles and a visiting professor at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism. (In LA yesterday, the top story was the Screen Actor's Guild Awards.) "If there hadn’t been a shift in Congress in November, I think the Democrats would be trying to get more weight out of the story. As it is, the Bush Administration has been sufficiently spanked by voters," he said.

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller testified today, the first of the many reporters potentially being called. While journalists have testified at trials before, Thomas McPhail, professor of media studies at University of Missouri - St. Louis makes the distinction that such testimony has not occurred in a high-profile federal case in which the sitting vice president is a witness.

How does this impact the credibility of journalists and the organizations for which they work?

Miller's credibility as a journalist has already been skewered. "She is seen as a stenographer for the White House," says McPhail. "She was doing Libby’s bidding in terms of covering the run-up to the war in Iraq. She was making the White House case (for weapons of mass destruction) without telling readers that she got all that information from White House. She mislead the public." The implications for such faulty reporting are also huge for her paper. "The New York Times is an agenda setter," he said. What it covers has ripple affect on other news organizations since her faulty reporting was picked up by papers across the country.

Miller's testimony, which doesn't seem to draw as much fervor considering she is the only reporter who spent time in jail (85 days) protecting the identity of Libby, is overshadowed by the upcoming testimony of Tim Russert of "Meet the Press." Libby contends that it was Russert who told him of Plame's identity. Russert denies this.

McPhail explains: "Russert is the gold standard of television news and political commentary. When he is on the witness stand and under cross examination, he will divulge how close he was to various key White House people. We've heard how the vice president was writing media notes; God forbid Russert was actually using them."

There's also a great deal of concern in the journalism industry about how this trial will impact the reporter/source relationship, particularly for the Washington Press Corps. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and his predecessor John Ashcroft have repeatedly shown they are ready to throw journalists into jail if they don't get the information they want, and they do so with little regard for the First Amendment.

While some trumpet the merits of a Federal Shield Law, it's doubtful that such a law would help in this case. Bandlow says it's difficult terrain for applying reporters privilege because it's a battle between the First Amendment and the Sixth Amendment (specifically to compel witnesses to testify on his or her behalf).

"If experience is any judge, media will always aggressively fight back on revealing source issues," says Bandlow. "But it will be difficult to win because this paradigm situation is when reporters privilege is undermined. The First and Sixth amendment issues conflict. This is different then when a prosecutor is asking for information to build a case. A defendant says, 'If I don’t get this information, I’m going to jail.'Which takes precedence?"

Bandlow doesn't believe a Federal Shield Law would help much because it's not enough to trump a constitutional amendment right. "The shield law’s applicability would be doubtful under the case of criminal defendant's right to defend himself," he said.

If we go back to the beginnings of this incident, we find journalists who were calling vociferously for an investigation into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak (His original column is no longer available. This is Slate's Jack Shafer's take.)

"Members of the media did not think all the way through this issue," says Bandlow. "The media attitude was, 'We want to get to bottom of who leaked this in order destroy the reputation of an administration critic. But if that means revealing confidential sources, we’re not willing to get to bottom of it.' "

The crime itself was only evidenced by conversations with reporters. The only way to get to the bottom of it was to go to the reporters, says Bandlow.

"Media's big pitch always is and should be the public has a right to know. At the same time, they turn around and say, 'I’m not gonna tell you about this.' It looks suspect because they are talking out of both sides of their mouth," he says.

McPhail sees several things coming out of this trial as a result of journalists' testimony. "I tend to think that it’s going to expose some of the journalists who have an all-too-cozy relationship with their sources," he says, calling into question the claim of objectivity and neutrality paramount to western journalism.

But he says the case could ultimately help journalism because it has exposed and provided a case study on how preoccupied the White House was—and is—with media coverage. That the vice president spends his days trying to come up with talking points to counter what's being reported seems a bit paranoid.

"This testimony gives us evidence that the media is important to this administration and that although (President) Bush claims not to read the news, that (Karl) Rove and (Dick) Cheney do almost to the exclusion of other issues they should be dealing with," says McPhail.

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