At a talk at the Yale Law School, Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper, who along with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, has been found to be in contempt of court for refusing to testify before the Valerie Plame grand jury, seems hastened by the experience.
He had this to say: "Journalists need to be humble when asking for privileges. We're basically asking for exemption from the law. We're asking for something farmers, businessmen don't have... We're asking for a big thing; it would behoove a journalist to ask for it with humility rather than arrogance."
Eloquently said. But there is still a larger point to be made: The public is not with us (journalists) regarding First amendment privileges as it once was. And there are good reasons that that is the case:
The public will only stand with us as long as we put the public interest ahead of our personal interest. They have understood the necessity of source confidentiality when they have viewed the press as a bulwark against government wrongdoing. And they will support us if we are seen to be advancing the public interest instead of the interests of ourselves or our sources.
The reason that the public has not been sympathetic to those who have become embroiled in the Novak case, has been because Novak was not engaging in his First amendment privileges to expose governmental wrongdoing, but rather exploiting those privileges in furtherance of governmental wrongdoing. And he was advancing his own ideological interest and that of his sources, instead of that of the public when he outed Valerie Plame as CIA operative. Novak did harm not only to Plame but also to ongoing intelligence operations essential to the war on terrorism. And he did monumental harm to his own profession.
Cooper has been quoted in Vanity Fair and elsewhere as being dismayed by the fact that Novak has not expressed any sympathy for his plight. But the larger issue is why Cooper and other journalists have not been more outspoken about wrongdoing in their own profession. It should not be empathy he should desire from Novak but rather journalistic propriety.
It is perhaps not unrelated that as journalistic ethics have eroded, First Amendment privileges have eroded as well. Is it in that manner that Novak might, in part, be responsible for the plight of Cooper and other journalists. But it has been Cooper's too-long own silence and that of others in our profession about journalistic misconduct, such as that of Novak's, that is responsible for his plight as well.
As journalists, we need to be humble in asking for special privileges under the law, and otherwise, but our humility is only the very first way to demonstrate that we are so deserving.
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