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Source of frustration

October 18, 2005

JUDITH MILLER IS OUT OF PRISON, no longer a martyr to the 1st Amendment, and on Sunday she broke her long public silence with a first-person account in the newspaper she works for, the New York Times. But it's becoming increasingly clear that she and her employer have abused the public's trust by manufacturing a showdown with the government.

The newspaper once claimed that Miller's willingness to go to jail rather than talk to the grand jury in the inquiry into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity was a badge of honor. Yet journalists from other news outlets appeared before the grand jury after receiving waivers releasing them from the promise of anonymity they had offered their sources. The Times alone insisted that such waivers were not enough and that it alone would stand up to an overreaching prosecutor.

This page expressed skepticism about such claims and, to its credit, the Times on Sunday published a full account of Miller's saga. What the story reveals isn't the Times' higher allegiance to the 1st Amendment, but its higher tolerance for the antics of a rogue reporter.

It was irresponsible for the Times to avoid inquiring further into Miller's dealings with Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, both in her reporting and in determining whether she had his blessing to testify. But her editors seemed all too willing to go along with whatever Miller wanted, even after they removed her from the "weapons of mass destruction" story because they no longer trusted her judgment. One example of that poor judgment (to put it charitably): She agreed to Libby's request to be cited in stories as a "former Hill staffer," a rather deceptive description for the vice president's chief of staff.

The larger concern, however, is not Miller's dysfunctional relationship with her editors but the damage she and her newspaper may have done to the principle they said they were defending: the importance of a free and independent press. The details of the Miller case (at least those that the paper has made public) reveal not so much a reporter defending a principle as a reporter using a principle to defend herself. There is still no satisfactory explanation, for instance, of why she changed her mind after 85 days in jail and decided to reveal her source.

Anonymous sources are often necessary; they make possible many articles about government or corporate misconduct. Yet the credibility of such sources -- and, by extension, of the newspapers that use them -- can be hard to measure. Leakers are almost always motivated by something other than a commitment to the truth. When reporters agree to withhold a source's name, they have an obligation to place the information they receive from that source in context. If journalists expect the public to take their work seriously, then they must be more careful about how they go about it.

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