Just when it looked as if the crisis in American journalism couldn't get much worse, the White House press corps is showing signs of intelligent life. In the aftermath of New York Times reporter Judith Miller's incarceration for non-cooperation with the special prosecutor's investigation of the Valerie Plame Wilson leak, journalists inside the Beltway have apparently developed a backbone.
It's been exhilarating to see reporters dispense with their usual subservience to Bush Administration officials and ask tough questions of the president and his staff. And while it's premature to suggest that the Fourth Estate is alive and well, at least there is a pulse.
Indeed, a few short weeks ago, the prospect of U.S. journalism doggedly pursuing such a damning story as President Bush's senior advisor Karl Rove's possible involvement in leaking the identity of a CIA officer would have been unthinkable.
As recently as May, 2005, when foreign news organizations were busy investigating allegations that the Bush Administration had politicized prewar intelligence on Iraq, the U.S. press was virtually silent on the implications of the so-called "Downing Street Memo."
Administration apologists dismissed this smoking gun out of hand and, with a lethal mix of arrogance and willful ignorance that has become commonplace among reporters and pundits, shrugged off growing public skepticism over the conduct of the war.
American journalism's lamentable performance on this score — along with a litany of press failures, including the search for WMDs, Vice-President Cheney's clandestine energy task force meetings, or the stolen elections of 2000 and 2004, to name but a few — is one more indication of just how compliant American journalists have become in recent years.
All of which brings us to the curious case of Judith Miller. Miller's staunch refusal to disclose her sources to special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has made her the poster child for press freedoms and journalists' privilege. Miller is hailed as a reporter of conscience who refuses to name confidential sources.
But as a July 18, 2005, media advisory published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) points out, Miller's defenders — including thoughtful observers like Miller's Times colleague Frank Rich and former NYT reporter Sydney Schanberg — may be overstating their case.
Protecting confidential sources is the lifeblood of investigative journalists. Reporters routinely rely on whistleblowers to speak to reporters at considerable personal and professional risk. Quite understandably, then, these sources do so on condition of anonymity.
However, as the FAIR advisory points out, journalists' privilege is not absolute. Journalists and editors must weigh their allegiance to confidential sources against the broader public interest of full disclosure of wrongdoing.
The irony in all this is hard to miss. Laudable as Miller's stance is in defense of the high caliber investigative journalism that the American people so desperately need and deserve, Miller's reporting in the lead up to the Iraq war was reprehensible. Her front-page stories on WMD amounted to little more than cheerleading for an administration determined to go to war.
Rather than challenge the administration's claims, as any self-respecting investigative journalist would have done, Miller's reporting amplified and legitimized the Bush Administration's spurious claims regarding Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs, as well as the administration's allusion to Iraqi complicity in the 9/11 attacks.
Appearing as it did on the front page of the New York Times — arguably the nation's most influential newspaper — Miller's reporting served the Bush Administration's purposes well.
Only after the invasion had been launched, and Miller's reporting was thoroughly debunked, did the editors of the New York Times sheepishly suggest that Miller's reporting was not nearly as rigorous as it might have been. By that time, of course, the damage to U.S. credibility had been done.
Sadly, the human costs of this war, based on the deceptions Miller and other "stenographers of power" helped propagate, mount with each passing day and with no end in sight.
All of which suggest that Judith Miller is something of an unlikely hero in what may be the turning of the tide in American journalism. Imprisonment and intimidation of journalists is anathema to a free press. And as it has become all too clear in recent years, our lackluster press corps, beholden as it is to advertisers, editors, and official sources, is anything but free and independent. So, if Judith Miller's refusal to cooperate with the federal prosecutor emboldens her peers, we do indeed owe her a great debt.
Perhaps this latest broadside against press freedoms will backfire, the White House press corps might come to realize that the emperor has no clothes, and American journalism may be on the mend.
The specters of both Vietnam and Watergate loom large over Bush's second term. It appears the press is less inclined to dutifully note the Bush Administration's wishful thinking on Iraq. What's more, the smell of political scandal surrounding Karl Rove is becoming irresistible to an otherwise deferential White House press corps.
We tend to look back at the early 1970s with the wistful nostalgia for a tenacious and aggressive brand of journalism. But that was not always the case. It took a long time, and considerable public support, for news workers to feel confident enough to challenge political and economic elites in a substantive, rigorous, and persistent fashion.
Perhaps that time has come again. As news readers, we owe it to ourselves to demand as much from our journalists. As citizens, we would do just as well to encourage and support reporters and editors to speak truth to power.
Kevin Howley is a assistant professor at Depauw University. He can be reached at .