Letter from the editor

Monday, July 11, 2005

Kill the messenger

I hope Judith Miller spends a good long time in jail.

Not that she's done a thing wrong. Not that she deserves it. Not that she isn't a fine journalist. Not that she's not, for all I know, a good upstanding citizen who is extremely kind to old people and dogs.

Maybe it's going to take a reporter in handcuffs for this country to wake up and realize how it is being manipulated by its government, to see how rapidly its core freedoms are being whittled away in the guise of national security.

I'm sorry if it has to be Judith Miller to the New York Times, but the picture of her in a jumpsuit behind bars could be as powerful an agent of change as was the courageous, solitary man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square.

If Miller can do cushy time at one of those minimum security Martha Stewart "prisons," it'll probably be worth it for what she makes of it on the novel and the lecture circuit, anyway.

Then again, nobody really cares. She's just the media. Media is bad, just ask any of the politicians who have drilled that into the public's heads. There would be no problems if the darn media would just stop informing people. I believe the philosophy is called "ignorance is bliss."

And that may be the most dangerous "weapon of mass destruction" yet.

No matter what mistakes are being made, abuses are being covered up and dirt is being swept under the rugs, simply blame the media for reporting it, and divert attention away from your own misdeeds. It works. We've let it.

Never mind that no one defines what "media" is. Tabloids? Muckrakers? Politically-slanted TV shows? The big newspapers and news magazines? Or your hometown community newspaper or little FM radio station?

Forget about "Deep Throat." Wouldn't happen today. Most reporters wouldn't touch that story, or their owners wouldn't let them. They wouldn't have the ability to keep their promise to protect the identity of their source - or if they tried, they'd get dragged into court to shut them up before they got far enough to topple the mighty.

Whether it is fair to "out" a CIA agent - which, if anyone remembers or cares, is the little nugget this whole mess was originally about - one surely has to agree that the two reporters harassed in this case are the subject of little more than a witch hunt.

After all, nobody's crying out against the "tipster" who gave out the sensitive information, they are too busy trying to imprison the reporters who had the guts to relate it.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the administration-appointed special prosecutor, is pushing not to solve a case or to prove truth or untruth to what has been written, but to pressure journalists to give up their sources. In so doing, the news media can be further crippled from revealing anything remotely negative from inside the government in the future.

Does anyone really take this as an being about truth? Hardly. It is pure intimidation tactics. Report anything the powerful don't like, and prepare to go to prison. Sources like "Deep Throat," who have the courage to step forward when they see leadership going wrong, cannot risk their careers or the chance of reprisals if the journalists they talk to cannot protect their sources.

It is a vital key to our society - the freedom of the press to give us information without government tampering. Yet this story on most news services this week was buried somewhere under Jen and Brad's business breakup and the latest dirt from former "American Idol" contestants. That should give us an idea of the kind of front page news we may look forward to, unless a top journalist goes to jail to wake us up a bit.

It is not just a national matter. Journalists in Iowa have had to go to court to get government information recently. This newspaper has at times had to turn to the Freedom of Information Council to protect freedom of the press locally as well. In one case some years ago, the Storm Lake City administration tried to impose a gag order on all city employees to prevent them from giving information to the media, ordering that all public comment had to come from an "official" spokesperson paid by the city. It was wrong, and it was stopped.

We can only guess that the ill old man who was "Deep Throat" must, in his heart, believe that he chose right in siding with national interest over the political motives of his own president. It would be frightening to think that we may create a journalistic environment where we will have no more "Deep Throats" and whistleblowers to step forward with the truth.

Reporters in jail for informing the people? It is a strange and ugly concept, but I think it may be the only thing to bring us to our national senses now.

To save the truth, it seems we may have to kill the messenger.