Sources and Lies

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The Scooter Libby trial and verdict is a sadly fitting chapter in the sorry story of the divisive war in Iraq. A jury decided that Libby committed perjury and obstructed justice in the Valerie Plame case. Ten reporters were hauled into court to tell where they had first learned of the ex-CIA agent’s identity.

Still, unfortunately, there is no federal shield law that could have kept those journalists off the witness stand or out of jail. But surely this trial has chilled reporters and their sources. The White House gained a victory by fastening the muzzle more tightly on the media and whistleblowers.

The verdict came just days before the March 11 beginning of Sunshine Week, in which the nation’s press organizations want to impress on the public the importance of open government and freedom of information.

The Plame case was a perverse version of how the Bush White House views the importance of information. Some jurors said they were sure Libby was just the fall guy and at the top of the executive branch someone decided to leak Plame’s identity, which endangered her life.

The Plame case exposed so many scars that were created or worsened by the war in Iraq. But first and foremost, it showed how adroitly the Bush White House manipulates a too often pliant press corps by selectively leaking information.

In the aftermath, the case also presents an opportunity for journalists to reassess a scoop mentality run amok in the 24/7 news cycle. In Washington, spin is part of the process and a big part of the problem. Too often, truth is an inconvenience.

Because of the growth of media sources, it’s easier than ever to distort reality. In the newly released State of American News Media 2007 (see p. 6) prepared for the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), the authors note, “Politicians, interest groups and corporate public-relations people tell PEJ they have bloggers now on secret retainer—and they are delighted with the results.”

Journalists need to be on their guard as never before. They, after all, are the “deciders” about what to publish.

Manipulating facts and information is a disease that infects both sides of the aisle. The liberal started a petition to stop Democratic presidential candidates in Nevada from showing up to a debate unless the state’s Democratic party refuses to partner with Fox News on the event. Regrettably, as of Friday, Democratic candidate John Edwards had decided to skip the debate, in part because of MoveOn’s disapproval.

Excluding media because they are disagreeable to one group or another is abhorrent to us, as it ought to be to that citizen watchdog group. In the end, impeding free speech and the free flow of information does a disservice to Americans, not just to journalists. That is a lesson the occupants of the White House also should have learned by now.