- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Will the experiences of Judith Miller prove the ultimate cautionary tale for journalists who fear they could be fired or incarcerated for relying on anonymous sources? The New York Times reporter was jailed for refusing to reveal who told her the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

As possible indictments loom, the Plame case could determine when confidential talk between informants and reporters constitutes a criminal act.

Rep. Mike Pence, who has introduced legislation to provide legal protection for reporters who won’t divulge their sources, said the Plame case could cast a damaging “chilling effect” on the relationship between reporters and sources, thus impeding the public’s right to know.

The Indiana Republican categorized the legislation as a “guardrail” and “safe harbor” for journalists.

The press is not particularly chilly at this point, however.

“I think journalists are still going to use anonymous sources for important stories, and for important reasons,” said CNN’s Candy Crowley yesterday. “Would I be afraid a prosecutor would come get me? No. Still, anytime a reporter thinks carefully about using an unnamed source, that’s good. But is there a chilling effect out there? No.”

Both the New York Times and The Washington Post used anonymous sources this week in stories about — anonymous sources, namely, those in the Plame case.

“Concern about confidential sources is not a new revelation. In the past two years, most news organizations have already tightened up their sourcing policies, particularly after the New York Times’ experiences with Jayson Blair,” said Gregg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher magazine, referring to a reporter who in 2003 was found to have falsified dozens of stories.

“The buzzword this week is criminalization. If a reporter is protecting sources who are criminals, then there’s probably something to fear. If their sources are true whistleblowers with the public interest in mind, that’s different,” Mr. Mitchell said.

“It’s just too early to tell how it’s going to shake out, to see what lessons have been learned. Two weeks, two months, two years? For journalists, there’s some reason to be concerned, but I speculate that many have already been rethinking their use of anonymous sources.”

Alex Jones of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy agreed.

“Time magazine has already come out to say their sources are still talking to them,” Mr. Jones said yesterday. “We should watch whether the Plame case inspires prosecutors to start going after reporters in a wholesale way. We may also see more conditional anonymity now where journalists tell sources ‘I’ll protect you if I don’t go to jail.’”

There has been some source-related fallout this week, however. Andrew Krucoff, a Conde Nast researcher, was fired Tuesday for leaking an internal staff memo to Gawker, a Manhattan news and gossip Web log. He was escorted from the building.

CNN researcher Tom Thomsen was also fired Tuesday for “speaking about the company to an outside source” — Fishbowl — a gossip blog about the New York press.

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