Thursday, June 30, 2005

CAN YOU IMAGINE how demoralized Time's reporting staff must be right now, knowing that they work for a magazine that will jettison the most basic principles of journalistic integrity to avoid paying the price?

Time agreed to hand over their reporter, Matthew Cooper's, "records, notes, and e-mail traffic" only a couple of days after the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, in which the government is trying to find out the name of the source who disclosed Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent to the press.

The magazine said that the high court's action will have "a chilling effect" on journalists' work but that Time had no choice.

"The same Constitution that protects the freedom of the press requires obedience to final decisions of the courts," Time said in a statement.

Nonsense. Of course Time had a choice. They had the same choice the New York Times had -- to comply with a court order and turn over their reporter's confidential and private notes to the government, or to refuse to comply. The New York Times has so far refused to comply. Time made a different decision. But let's not pretend there's no decision involved.

It's a good thing that women fighting for the right to vote didn't make the kind of decision Time made. Or black Americans fighting Jim Crow laws. Thank goodness that Rosa Parks did not say to herself, when asked to move to the back of the bus so a white person could have her seat, "Well, let's see now. Plessy v. Ferguson ruled in 1892 that segregation does not violate the 13th or 14th Amendments. I disagree with that and feel segregation has a chilling effect on human freedom, but the Constitution requires obedience to final decisions of the courts."

If people of conscience had not been willing throughout American history to disregard "final decisions" of the courts when those decisions conflicted with their deepest held beliefs about social justice and human rights, then those "final decisions" would never have been revisited and re-decided -- to the advantage of every American's freedom.

But, of course, making a principled decision to defy the law carries with it certain consequences. Civil disobedience has a long and honorable history in the U.S., but you must realize there is a price and be willing to pay that price. That's why it's called "civil disobedience." In many episodes of American history, those consequences involved accepting serious risks to one's physical safety, up to and including one's life. In the case at hand, the consequence is possibly spending time in jail. And Time's editorial management apparently didn't want their reporter jailed for refusing to reveal a source. That's what they say, anyway. What's odd, though, is that, although the AP article did not say whether Matt Cooper was willing to spend time in jail to protect his source, Cooper did make it clear that he did not want Time to turn over his reporter's notes to the government.

Outside court on Wednesday, Cooper said that he hoped the magazine would not turn over the documents requested by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who has been heading the grand jury probe into who disclosed Plame's identity days after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly disparaged the president's case for invading Iraq.
What gets to me the most is Norman Pearlstine's insufferable self-righteousness about a principle he is not willing to defend or support when it counts the most. How can the editor-in-chief of Time magazine make a statement like this:

"The Supreme Court has limited press freedom in ways that will have a chilling effect on our work and that may damage the free flow of information that is so necessary in a democratic society. ..."

and then turn around and say this:

"The court concluded that a citizen's duty to testify before a grand jury takes precedence over the First Amendment. ...I do not agree with that, but I have to follow the laws like every other citizen."

With friends of the First Amendment like that, who needs enemies?

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