The jailing of Judith Miller of the New York Times and last-minute reprieve for Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper is already showing signes of having major implications for the freedom of the press in the United States.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer is sitting on two stories based on leaked documents because they don’t want to expose their reporters to the same dilemna of chosing between burning a source and going to jail.
Meanwhile, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff (he of the Lewinskygate and the Qu’aran-in-toiletgate) is reporting that Karl Rove was the source that Cooper was protecting.
For British audiences not familiar with the chast of characters in Washington journalism, Peter Preston the Observer neatly translates the whole soap opera into Westminsterese:
Even my American friends — though wholly supportive of the New York Times’s Judith Miller and her stalwart refusal to name her sources, even from a prison cell – get a bit perplexed on the details. Isn’t this the same Judith Miller who set off a US-wide drive against using anonymous sources last year, because her source on Iraq WMDs in the build-up to war turned out to be Ahmed Chalabi? And doesn’t everyone assume that one of the guys she’s protecting is Karl Rove, George Bush’s own prince of darkness?
It’s rather like Andrew Gilligan choosing to spend six months in Brixton to defend a source called Alastair Campbell. The principle is magnificent, as long as you don’t try to explain it.
Update: The Christian Science Monitor’s story on Miller’s jailing assesses the potential consequences:
It is not reporters but sources themselves whose behavior may change the most, says one expert. Having seen the limits of their legal protection, potential whistle-blowers could become more reluctant to pick up the phone and make, or take, a media call.
And Jay Rosen is spot on: Robert Novak, the rightwing columnist who (unlike Miller) actually named Valerie Plame as a CIA operative in print should be the reporter on the receiving end of all those chilling effects.