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tom rosenstiel

A journalist with more than 20 years experience, Rosenstiel is the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to research and evaluate the performance of the press. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 16, 2006.

How did the content of news coverage in the media change after 9/11?

… After 9/11, what you saw was a media culture that was scared straight. The hard-news component in network news, in morning network news and on cable news, surged upward. …

That wasn't sustained. By the second quarter of 2002, we saw the media reverting back to the mix of hard and soft news that we'd seen before 9/11 -- not completely, but it had gone about three-quarters of the way back to this somewhat more tabloid, more lifestyle-oriented news agenda. We saw that in various studies that we conducted, and that others did.

In the initial stage after 9/11, how well, in your estimation, did the news media do in covering the war in Afghanistan?

I think you have to break understanding the press coverage after 9/11 into three parts: The first part was the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington. What happened there was that the press became very serious, and also very cautious. There was a marked effort by journalists not to rush to judgment, as there had been after the attacks in Oklahoma City, to follow the evidence fairly carefully; to not inject too much opinion into the coverage.

In studies that we did, we saw a higher degree of factualness or reporting without opinion than we'd seen previously. And we also saw in public opinion surveys an uptick, the first time in 15 years, in public confidence in the press in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

There was another component to that, which was that the networks went on the air for several weeks without commercial interruption. In other words, they did something that was not in their immediate economic interest because there was an overriding public need and curiosity. …

The second phase of the press coverage after 9/11 was the move to Afghanistan. There you saw the Bush administration and the Pentagon take a harder line toward the press than we'd seen even in the first Iraq war. … Reporters were penned in in hangars. They weren't out with troops. They really didn't have access, and they were begging for it. But it was also not very controversial, because what we were doing in Afghanistan we had virtually universal approval, both in this country and in much of the world. We were going after, directly, the people who had coordinated the attacks on the United States.

“In the age of the blogosphere, the news media is in an open courtroom and in a sense kind of under oath, because it's going to be cross-examined in real time by any blogger or any critic who wants to raise questions.”

The third phase of the coverage after 9/11 was the run-up after Afghanistan, the run-up to the war in Iraq. I think this is the phase that people now remember as policymakers debated, should we go to war in Iraq? What was the predicate for the war in Iraq? Were there weapons of mass destruction? What was our intelligence? This third phase culminated with [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell going to the United Nations and making his international explanation of why war in Iraq was justified.

In that phase, I think the press made what was largely a realpolitik calculation, at least in its own mind. It decided that since there wasn't significant opposition to the war by Democrats or others, that it wasn't going to give a lot of coverage to what little opposition there was. The question of whether there were weapons of mass destruction or any of these other claims got less scrutiny from the press, because it made the calculation that war was going to happen anyway. …

There were tensions inside some news organizations, and reporters who were more skeptical of the administration claims were told basically, in some instances, "We're not going to give your stories a lot of prominence in the paper, because this is going to happen." …

Why has there been so much scrutiny, so much attention to The New York Times' coverage of the WMD claims?

It's important to understand that the number of news organizations that actually have a national security reporter or bureaus overseas and can penetrate the intelligence community are very limited. You're talking about a handful of news organizations, and The New York Times is at the top of that list. This is an elite debate understood by elite audiences, and that's the newspaper of elites.

So when The New York Times began to have stories that supported the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that was very influential. It had an echo effect. It had an echo effect that the administration was conscious of and employed. They had berated The New York Times for liberalism in the past, so when there were stories in the Times that supported their point of view, they would then turn around and say, "Even The New York Times has got a story here the other day that supports our position about weapons of mass destruction." It was kind of a loop.

And it was a conscious loop. We now know that you had people on the vice president's staff talking to Judy Miller, who was one of the key reporters doing these stories for the Times, leaking that material to her or helping her with her stories. Those stories would appear, and then they would reference the very material that they'd given her and say, "See, this is coming from The New York Times, not just us," when, in fact, it was coming from the administration.

I want to give you some of the responses we've had from journalists and get your critique on things that they've gotten wrong. Judith Miller, for instance, says that she's getting the same intelligence that the president does, and her sources were wrong. Therefore, she's wrong. And she's never known intelligence to overestimate a threat. It's always been the opposite in the past.

I think the problem with the argument that the intelligence was wrong and therefore the press was wrong is that not all the press went along with the intelligence. And not all of the intelligence went one way. There were reporters even at The New York Times who were hearing contrary information. They just had more difficulty getting it in the paper.

There were other news organizations that were reporting different things. The Knight Ridder Washington bureau was reporting different things. It's true that significant sources in the administration and in the intelligence community, including, at the time, the head of the CIA, were arguing this way. But there was enough tension there, I think, to merit some skepticism. …

I think it's important to point out that, historically, the press has not done a wonderful job of being skeptical in the run-up to war, and when the commander in chief says, "We have to go," the press, historically, has fallen in line. … The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution at the beginning of the Vietnam War turned out to be something of a trumped-up charge, and it took decades for the press to correct the record on that. At the time, the resolution in the Senate passed overwhelmingly, and the press went along.

We talked to Clark Hoyt, who was with Knight Ridder at the time, and he's still at a loss as to why. He said, "We were just following good reporting." … He said, "I felt very lonely."

One of the things that people don't appreciate is that the instances in which journalists go out on their own for an extended period of time are rare. [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein and Watergate going for almost a year without the press following them and confirming their stories, that's the exception. Most journalists don't want to have a scoop that remains a scoop for more than about 48 hours. They want their rivals to write affirming stories; they just want them to be a day behind. …

Knight Ridder continued with its skeptical coverage. Now we're at a point where that coverage looks very good, but I think for a long time, people thought, well, that's just one group of reporters, and it's in a relatively -- you know, this is not The New York Times; this is not The Washington Post. …

Now, in the broadcast world, any skepticism?

Well, we're at a point now where broadcast news does not have the influence over the news agenda that it once did. There's a [survey] out that shows that most journalists don't even see what's on the network news; they're working on their own stories at that time. So the instances in which the coverage on network television or cable television shapes the agenda of the news generally is pretty limited. …

The thing to understand about cable news and its influence over the news agenda is that most cable news is actually extemporaneous. It's people going on camera live. The journalists themselves have a diminished role there, because they're basically talking off of notes, talking off of the tape, the top of their head, and repeating what they've been told by newsmakers or the news, or they're interviewing newsmakers. …

So the journalism itself on cable has an agenda-setting impact in telling us what to think about. But the nature of the coverage itself on cable is really controlled, I think, to a much greater degree by the sources than it is by the journalists. …

How would you rate the job done by the news media in covering the invasion of Iraq and major combat operations?

The invasion of Iraq was dominated by the use of a new tool by the Pentagon, which was the embedded reporter system. … I think, in general, the use of the embedded program by the press was not very good. The program itself was better than the way the media employed it. The embedded program gave hundreds of reporters very limited perspective -- it's been described as a soda straw's-eye view of the war. You could see exactly what a grunt, what one soldier could see. You knew only what your unit was doing. …

To make use of the embedded program, the press probably should have collected each of these soda straw's-eye views and put them together to get perspective, to get context. You saw some of this in the evening newscast on the networks and some in the papers. But the studies that we did of the embedded program suggested that the dominant use in morning television and on cable was to just go live; that you'd see one embedded reporter doing a kind of extemporaneous off-the-cuff report, and then they'd go to another embedded reporter whenever they were in a place where they could transmit.

It was very frustrating for the American public, because they were just getting these disconnected snippets of information. It was very difficult to know what they added up to.

It was also very sanitized, because the reporters were kept at a safe distance. We monitored the first week of embedded coverage, which was the heaviest week of the war. You would see bombs and artillery and weapons fired, and you would even see, occasionally, where they would strike. But you didn't see any video of the effect. … This stood in contrast, of course, to what people were seeing in the Middle East. …

I want to shift and talk a bit more about the Bush administration, specifically in relations with the media. … What about this broader charge about the media being unfair to Bush? …

The president has, up until probably midway through 2006, taken the point of view that the news media is a hostile special interest, that it doesn't represent the public or the public interest. He's articulated that, and others [in the] administration have articulated that.

They have data to back up that theory. We have now two decades of public opinion polling that shows that Americans increasingly doubt the morality of the press, the accuracy of the press, the intentions of the press by any number of different measurements and different ways of asking the question.

When you boil that data down, increasingly Americans doubt that the press is operating in the public interest. They perceive news organizations as operating out of their own economic interests, and they perceive individual journalists as operating out of the motive of advancement of their own careers.

The Bush administration has capitalized and exploited that increasing cynicism about the press, and they've done that, in part, out of a genuine suspicion that the press is liberal. I think that there are many people in the administration who are sincere in their sense that the press is biased. I think there are others in the administration who think it's a useful calculation.

It's a useful strategy to accuse the press of bias, whether they believe it or not. It's useful because it discredits bad news, and it's useful because it puts journalists on the defensive. It makes them less aggressive if you accuse them of being biased. …

I also believe that the Bush administration believes in what you might call the conduit model of press management. The conduit model is: The press is a technology. It's a machine, and you want to use that machine to your purposes. You don't want to persuade journalists of your point of view; you just want to use their cameras.

Democrats and liberals, both by nature and by training, believe in what you might call the constituent model of press management, which is the press is a constituency. We're going to persuade them; we're going to win them over one journalist at a time, let them see our point of view. That's how we'll win positive coverage. …

So the Bush administration has, following on the heels, to a large degree, of the Reagan administration, felt that it [would] have more success in using the press than winning the press over. … I think they really have given up on the idea that the press is even trying to be fair.

They also have a lot of media today that did not exist 20 years ago in talk radio, in certain cable programs, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, where they can get their message out in an undiluted way. … The technology of modern communications has generally ceded more power to the newsmaker. …

So much of the strategy of attacking the press works because there's already a good chunk of the population that believes the press is biased. But why is that?

I think that the growing sense of unease about the press is fed by three different things. One is the press's behavior itself. The technology has exploded, and that has resulted in most news organizations having a smaller piece of the pie, smaller audience. They've cut back on their news-gathering resources as their audience has shrunk. … That's fueled the sense that the press is not operating in the public interest, but has been operating in the interest of its shareholders and maintaining profit margins and things like that. So that economic behavior has fed a dissatisfaction with the press. ...

The second reason that attacking the press has worked is that we've now had 10 years of politicians, mostly on the right, attacking the press as being biased. There's a context now. When you make that accusation, I've been hearing it for so long it must be true. There's also more information out there about the press that shows that journalists tend to be more liberal. That newsrooms in the 1990s actually did become, between the 1980s and the 1990s, more liberal.

Then the third reason that it works is that we know, in public opinion polling, that more people are inclined to think that the press is biased for the other two reasons. So you're now preaching to a more persuaded audience when you make these accusations.

Then, quite apart from whether or not it works or not in terms of public opinion, it does tend to put reporters on their heels, because reporters feel that they're trying to be fair, by and large. Often they don't succeed. But when you attack them as failing in their professional ethics of fairness, they want to redouble their efforts to prove that they're fair. …

Can you talk about this administration's exercise of message control?

Well, for much of the president's first six years in office, the Bush administration demonstrated the greatest amount of discipline in terms of message control of any administration in modern history. There was a sense that the administration was filled with veterans who had been in other White Houses. … They knew what they were doing, and they knew how to control leaks. And they made loyalty, the ideological loyalty and personal loyalty to the president, a greater value in picking key people in agencies here and abroad, and even in Iraq, than previous administrations did. …

You also had a high degree of skill in message control to go along with the discipline. Usually vice presidents are typically people who are sort of loose-lipped, and they're the guy you send out to say anything. But this vice president is one of the most skillful communicators. …

From a political standpoint, I think future administrations are going to study how the Bush administration did this and admire and emulate that level of discipline in message control. Only now, after six years, are we beginning to see the [rifts] over message and the policy disagreements that usually, frankly, you see after three years or two years in an administration.

[What has happened when former officials have broken with the administration message?]

In this administration, we've seen that there are consequences to leaking and breaking faith, if you will, with the administration line. You are not treated well. Secretary [of the Treasury Paul] O'Neill, who wrote with journalist Ron Suskind a book raising doubts and concerns about the way the Bush administration made decisions, was made to look like a laughingstock by the message controllers who went out with great discipline and attacked him. This is a man who's served past presidents with great distinction. …

That may begin to change. We're now seeing a series of nonfiction books appear about the administration in which sources who talked before and did not reveal things are beginning to reveal doubts. I think some of those people are beginning to feel that history is not going to treat events in Iraq all that kindly, and they want to get on the right side of that story and that may be more important to some of these people than what happens with the Bush administration and their former friends there. …

I want to talk more about the public relations in this administration. ... Estimates show, best we can tell, that this administration has spent roughly double in terms of public relations contracts what the previous administration had. Do you have any sense what's behind this?

I think that the administration's attempt to use public relations and video news releases and to create their own pseudo-journalism to spread out into the media machine reflects two things: one, the sensibility that the press is a technology to be used rather than a group of people to be persuaded -- this conduit model of press relations, I think. The other thing that it reflects, I believe, is that as the press has cut back on resources and spread itself thin, that your ability to succeed in getting this material into the media bloodstream goes up.

We know from the work that we've done that in local television, the use of wire feeds, material that's secondhand from other sources, has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. The number of stories in which there's a correspondent in the piece in local has gone down. The amount of enterprise work in local television is going down. As you lose audience, you spread your resources thinner, and this has created more potential for people to just take stuff from elsewhere and put it on the air.

I've heard this from liberal and conservative activists in Washington that 10 years ago, they would send out raw materials that they hoped might be used in television pieces, and gradually over the years they've discovered that if they send whole pieces with scripts and off-screen narrators, that those pieces will appear on the air re-dubbed by a local newscaster. …

Can you talk about in that context, the paying off of the columnists Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher?

Yeah. Now, I think that the production of video news releases by the Department of Education or Health and Human Services or other agencies falls into one category of press manipulation which the Bush administration was more aggressive about than Clinton administration. But the next administration of whatever party it's from may be also very aggressive about it, because they can do it because the press is willing to be manipulated. …

You're really walking a dangerous line, it seems to me, when you start paying off journalists, because you risk antagonizing not only the press in general, but also the public, [which], for all of its doubts about press performance, does respect still the job of an independent press, the notion of an independent press. Even today, if you ask most Americans, "Would you rather see a partisan press or an independent press?," overwhelmingly they want an independent press. And as the administration has become somewhat less popular in the last two years, the levels of support for the watchdog press has gone up.

Right after 9/11, in a poll question that the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has asked over the years, two-thirds of Americans said if given a choice between national security and the public's right to know, after 9/11, two-thirds supported national security.

Today, those numbers -- really just in the last two years -- have gradually reversed. Today, two-thirds of Americans said they'd be more worried about the public's right to know than national security. Why? Hard to say, of course, but I've got to believe that declining confidence in the administration as his approval ratings have dropped, declining doubts about policies, probably mostly related to Iraq. If you begin to lose confidence in a government's policies, you begin to want a press to be more skeptical. …

I want to talk about the "Rathergate" story. What did CBS do wrong?

Well, in what's become known as the Rathergate or "Memogate" story at CBS, CBS's 60 Minutes II did a report about the president's war record during Vietnam and the National Guard and cited documents that it claimed were proof that his National Guard supervisor at the time thought that he had gotten special preferential treatment.

What CBS failed to do was to authenticate whether those documents were legitimate and accurate. It claimed that it had authenticated the documents, but in reality, all it had done is gotten experts to document that the signature was that of the person whose name was on the documents. But it's quite possible the documents themselves were manufactured. …

Within 24 hours, there were people in the blogosphere raising questions and supposing that the documents were falsified. In the end, it was never resolved whether the documents were false or not, but it was clear that CBS had not done a sufficient job of authenticating.

I think we'll look back on Memogate as a moment when the news media discovered that it can no longer get away with claiming to know things that it really hasn't verified, claiming to have authenticated things that it really hasn't authenticated, or claiming to have brought in experts who are really not experts in all the things that the media may claim. In a sense, in the age of the blogosphere, the news media is in an open courtroom and in a sense kind of under oath, because it's going to be cross-examined in real time by any blogger or any critic who wants to raise questions.

What about the charge of liberal bias laid bare right there?

What we know about Memogate was that it was a failure to authenticate documents. Why did CBS and Dan Rather fail to authenticate documents? Was it because Rather's got a liberal bias? Was it the producer who has a liberal bias? Was it a failure of systems, because the ranks of CBS News had been so thinned out over the years that there weren't sufficient checks and balances? Was it some combination of all of those things?

My gut is that it was a combination, that you did have some people who had an anti-Bush bias, and then you had other people for whom that wasn't a factor, but there just weren't enough bodies in the system anymore. And too much responsibility was handed over to somebody who did have a bias.

What do you think it does in the end for the public's perception?

Memogate is going to mean for people who see bias in the press as proof that it exists. It's going to mean for people who deride consolidation [and] conglomeration in the press as a sign of the corporate decline of CBS News. For other people, it means that what CBS claims that it represented, which was too much speed, too much eagerness to get something on the air. …

I know for Don Hewitt, who developed 60 Minutes originally at CBS, Memogate represented a loss of perspective, because the story that did Dan Rather in in the end wasn't a story that was all that new. It wasn't really a dramatically different story about George Bush's war record than we knew in the past. It wasn't worth, in other words, going out on a limb. A week later, The New York Times had most of the same story without the falsified documents or questionable documents, and it didn't make a ripple.

You mentioned liberal bias. ... It's what you study. Is there a liberal bias in the media?

Yeah. I think there is a problem with liberal bias in the media. It's not the one that some conservatives see. It's not a conscious attempt to help one party and hurt another. …

The problem is that we don't have sufficient intellectual diversity in our newsroom -- too many reporters who are left-leaning and not enough reporters who are right-leaning. When you lack the debate in the newsroom, you lack a certain perspective.

How does that play out? It's not that journalists don't want to be fair, but it's difficult to be fair when you lack a wide enough range of views pouring over the news. So it plays out when new conservative ideas come up. Whether it's school vouchers or partial-birth abortion or something else, you'll see a liberal instinct in first reactions: "Oh, that's a phony issue," or, "It's just designed to win votes," or, "There's no substance behind that," or, "That's only going to hurt the poor." …

So it is harder for new conservative ideas to gain currency, to get fair coverage. That, I think, reinforces this sense that conservatives have that, "Ah, there it is again: God." And they sense then it can't be unconscious. "It's so apparent to me over and over and over; it just has got to be on purpose."

There is just no question about the makeup of the American newsroom. We know from studies from different sources -- and I don't mean quick and dirty studies about who you voted for in the last election, but deeper studies that have been done over time -- that the percentage of people in American newsrooms lean, politically, a certain way. …

... Could you talk sort of broadly about how anonymous sourcing in journalism has evolved since Watergate?

Yeah. I think that it's important in understanding the [Valerie] Plame case to understand how anonymous sourcing has changed over the last generation. During Watergate and before that, confidentiality was a tool that journalists would offer to reluctant sources to coax them to come forward. It was the journalist who would say: "If you won't tell me on the record, why not go on background? I won't name you. I'll protect you. You're safe."

Over the last 25 years, that has shifted to the point where confidentiality and anonymity are conditions that the source often imposes on the journalist before even talking to them in the first place. We've reached the point in Washington where today, it's a standing, understood rule that every press spokesman on Capitol Hill will be anonymous. Why? Because only the members should speak for his or her office.

So you have a situation where people who are paid by taxpayers' money are granted freedom to not be accountable for what they say on the record because everybody uses background all the time, and it's just the way of the world: "If you won't play by those rules, I won't talk to you." It's been a complete power shift in which what was once a journalistic tool for coaxing sources, whistleblowers, to come forward, has shifted over and is now in the employ of the source, not the journalist. …

How does the public feel about anonymous sourcing?

Well, anonymous sourcing is one of those fascinating issues, because the public hates them. The public hates having information withheld from them. We've seen this in surveys for years and years and years. It's one of the things that the public finds very, very irritating. Anonymous sourcing is extremely unpopular.

Yet the public supports the notion of a watchdog press. It's one of the few things that the public still likes about the press is that it serves this watchdog function. So journalists have this complicated reaction: How can I perform the watchdog function for you and not get whistleblowers and other sources to tell me things in confidence? I can't do one without the other.

If you press the public with a series of complicated questions, you'll get the answer that, while they don't like anonymous sourcing, if there's no other way to get the information, they understand and they accept it. …

How did these issues play out in the Plame case?

The Plame case was very complex and changed over time. In the beginning, you had a sense that there was a runaway prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] who was getting people in government to sign these flimsy waivers that would say to a reporter, "I may have spoken to you, but I've signed this waiver under threat of losing my job." …

You had a variety of journalists in town who were saying, "This makes me sick," the idea that you forced a government employee to sign a waiver, and now you can use that waiver as a club to get a journalist to repudiate his promise of confidentiality.

Suddenly, everything is now turned on its head. Eventually people began to see, however, the sources in the Plame case not as confidential sources or whistleblowers, but there was this sense that these confidential sources were different. They weren't really sources; they were political spinners. They were using confidentiality as a political weapon to retaliate against someone who disagreed with the administration, Valerie Plame's husband [former Ambassador Joseph Wilson].

This notion that anonymity and confidentiality had been flipped, some jujitsu had happened in Washington -- suddenly it was not something that the journalists controlled, but that the sources controlled -- came to dominate the background of the Plame case. ...

The Plame case has had different phases to it. Initially, I think there was a sense that the prosecutor was out of control. He began to investigate reporters who had not written stories. … That, I think, in the early days of the investigation alarmed a lot of people in Washington, particularly journalists. How can you possibly grill a reporter for what he didn't write? Now you're really getting into thought process and work process. This is not good for free press.

Then suddenly, these reporters began to talk, reporters who were highly regarded in some cases, and there was a lot of confusion. Why would these reporters talk? What's the pretext? … Some of these reporters used the waivers as an excuse to testify. Others said, "No, I think the waivers themselves are being signed under duress."

Initially, there was a sense that these reporters who resisted were really being heroic. But even, over time, that began to change as the perception about the whole question of leaking and who was leaking and who were they leaking to and why were they leaking became more complicated.

How did this come to be on Judith Miller's head?

I don't remember the number now, but there were about a half a dozen reporters who were involved in this case and who were asked to testify. Gradually, every single one of them capitulated and ended up testifying; in other words, saying, "I know I granted these sources anonymity, and I know that in some cases I didn't even write a story, but I'm going to testify anyway." This goes against the grain of all the training that journalists have, which is, "If I give you my word that I'll protect you, I'll go to jail." …

Suddenly Judy Miller of The New York Times, a reporter who is extremely controversial and whose work on weapons of mass destruction had been largely repudiated by the time of the Plame case, is now the last standard-bearer, the last reporter who is willing to stand up to protect her sources. Whatever mixed feelings [people] had about Judy Miller, or even who her sources might be, there was a lot of residual respect for the fact that she went to jail and sat in a jail cell and actually slept on the floor and not even on a cot, because she had to share the jail cell with another inmate, and the other inmate got the cot. So there were a lot of mixed feelings here among reporters. I think those mixed feelings persisted until Judy Miller explained in her own words her motivations and her decision, ultimately, to testify. …

It seems like she was attacked pretty strongly.

Right. The Miller case is complicated because she's so complicated. She had been a champion, really, of the administration's point of view in the run-up to the war with her coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which supported the administration's point of view; relied heavily on sources that the administration was promoting, particularly [Iraqi National Congress founder] Mr. [Ahmad] Chalabi; and was then an extremely controversial character inside The New York Times and inside the journalism fraternity. …

I think that Judith Miller was perceived as a complex but heroic figure until the very moment that she decided to get out of jail. What did her in, in the end, was her own words. Her own explanation of why she chose, in the end, to testify, and to respect the waiver was unpersuasive to reporters. She said, in the end, that, "I chose that I owed it to myself to get out of jail." And people said: "Well, what does that mean? What First Amendment principle are you upholding at that point?"

Then her explanation went on to talk about the details of her interaction with her source, [then-Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney] Scooter Libby, and journalists were even more concerned. She granted him confidentiality. It was so protective that it didn't appear that her motivation was to work in the public interest at all. She was willing, at one point, to describe him as a former Capitol Hill aide, which, as The Washington Post later said, is the equivalent of describing a person in Washington as "some guy." Within days, frankly, of her first-person account in The New York Times, her career in The New York Times was effectively over. …

What's the difference between Judith Miller's source, and Deep Throat?

Well, from the journalist's standpoint, there is no difference, to tell you the truth. A source is a source, and the motive of the source really shouldn't be relevant to the journalist.

One thing people need to understand is that when you're negotiating the conditions for a conversation, you do so at the beginning of the conversation: What's the ground rules here? Are we on the record, or are we on background?, which means I don't name you. Are we on off-the-record basis?, which, properly, means I can't quote you under any basis. All I can do is take this information privately and use it to try and pry confirmation from others.

At the beginning of a conversation, you don't know what your source is going to tell you, and you don't know what their motive is for telling you, particularly if you're talking to a high-ranking administration official who might be leaking you information about some things, but doing political spin about other topics in the conversation. …

However, to the public, and to the popular imagination that's looking at the press in an interaction, the motive of the source is everything. And the whistleblower who was Deep Throat, reluctantly guiding an investigative reporter, and to correct and steer him on the right, more accurate course, is very different than a high-ranking administration official lunching in an elegant Washington hotel and spinning a reporter with the protection of background confidentiality to protect them from any political ramifications of what they've said. …

Does this investigation tell us anything about the Bush administration trying to get their message out, their viewpoint out?

Washington journalism has always operated, and continues to operate, even in the age of the Internet and the age of cable news and instantaneous communication, with very high-powered, top aides to the president talking in salons and in restaurants and in private conversation with elite journalists.

That situation, which existed even in colonial days, continues to exist. It's as old as journalism. Why? Because that's the powerful trying to get their message out to other elites, through elite media. And that's what occurred in the Plame case. It's what occurred in Watergate. It's what occurred during the Nixon administration, the Kennedy administration, the Roosevelt administration, the first Roosevelt administration, the Lincoln administration.

The lessons there are simply that, in an age of media scrutiny, the journalists have to be more careful about whose interests they're serving. Are they really having these conversations on behalf of the public, or are they having these conversations on behalf of themselves? Whose allegiance are they serving? There is more transparency now about these elite conversations than there's ever been. We're going to know more about them. There's going to be more scrutiny of them. Bloggers are going to start wondering about, "What was going through your mind as you were interviewing that Cabinet secretary?" …

In terms of the big picture for First Amendment freedom of the press, what do you think the long-term consequences of the Plame affair will be?

I think the Plame affair was a sobering moment for journalists and for the public of just how far out of control the use of anonymous sourcing has become.

It was a moment in which journalists realized they've lost a tool, that confidentiality is no longer something that is in their employ, and I think that there will be some healthy pulling back. Even before the Plame case was over, you saw new policies at The New York Times, at The Washington Post and at a host of other news organizations in which, if a source asks for anonymity, now several news organizations are going to explain not only in some cases why the request was made, but even why the news organization agreed to honor the request. …

So are anonymous sources bad for reporting?

Anonymous sourcing is like any other tool. Is a chainsaw a bad tool? Well, if you don't use it properly, it certainly is; you can cut your arm off. And the same thing is true of anonymous sourcing. …

Are you not concerned about a chilling effect from the legal precedent from this case?

Well, I don't know that we know yet what the legal precedent in this case will be. I am concerned about the use of the waivers. The special prosecutor was viewed, by the end, as almost a kind of heroic figure to journalists, because he was going after sources who were using confidentiality for political reasons, and he was trying to get at whether they then lied about their conversations with reporters.

But the use of waivers, however judiciously used in this case, [is] going to only be used more widely in other cases. That's just what happens. We're in an environment where there's no harm to judges or prosecutors for going after reporters. I think we're going to see more waivers; I think we're going to see them used less discriminately. And I think that journalists, in the end, are going to regret what happened in the Plame case. …

You talked about the public opinion of journalists and their practices changing over time. How much do you think public opinion comes to bear on judges when they're deciding whether or not it's appropriate to subpoena journalists?

I'm not a lawyer, but as a journalist, I have a strong sense that judges operate in a political context. Today there seems to be almost no penalty in the press or in the popular imagination for going after journalists. …

What do you think of the prospects for a federal shield law?

I'm not sure what the betting would be on whether we'll have a federal shield or not, but I wouldn't put a great deal of stock in the idea that that shield law is going to make much difference.

There are shield laws all over the country, in different states, and they vary from very good for the press to not being worth much at all for the press. In the political context we're looking at in Washington, I would gather that whatever is passed, if anything is passed, would be in the latter camp.

Given what you said about liberal bias … is President Bush justified in his attitude toward the press?

I think the notion that has become popular, that the press is an illegitimate institution and the mainstream press is just not to be trusted, is really dangerous, really unhealthy for the country generally. I don't think it's wise for politicians to go down that road. It's not constructive criticism, if you will.

The independent press model that we've developed in the United States the last 150 years is really the envy of the democratic world. … What [a partisan press model] would mean is a less professional, a less accurate press, a more opinion-oriented press. And we're not lacking for opinion in the media culture that we have. What we're lacking is on-the-ground, shoe-leather reporting.

But this notion that the press is just another special interest, just a corporate interest, that you should write them off, that objectivity is a joke, and that we should all just sort of assume that the one press is liberal and another press is conservative doesn't serve our political system. It doesn't serve our geography, our political culture, and it's not going to lead to a better journalism. What it will lead to is a kind of fractious marketplace, where it will be hard to know who to trust or what to believe. …

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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