How Washington leakers tie reporters in knots.

Media criticism.
Sept. 30 2003 6:53 PM

The Access Trap

How anonymous sources tie reporters in knots.

The biggest news story in Washington this week is the identity of the two White House leakers who blew the cover of Valerie Plame—a covert CIA employee and wife of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV—by revealing her identity to columnist Robert Novak, who published it in a July 14, 2003, column.

The Novak-Wilson-Plame story is so huge because 1) the leak appears (to some) to be a dirty trick designed to punish Wilson for going public on the July 6 New York Times op-ed page with his version of the Niger yellowcake uranium story; 2) it's against federal law ($50,000 in fines and 10 years in prison) for a government official who has access to classified information to disclose a covert agent's identity; 3) it indicates the extent to which the Bush administration will dissemble to sear its version of the war on terror on the public consciousness; and 4) we haven't had a good scandal joy ride in Washington since Monicagate.

But Novak can't shed any light on the leakers' identities, of course, because he promised them anonymity in exchange for the information. Nor can the six unnamed reporters who, according to the Washington Post, were peddled similar information by two White House officials but who never used the information in their journalism. Ambassador Wilson told the Post yesterday that four reporters working for three TV networks told him in July that administration officials had contacted them to plant news stories that would include his wife's covert identity. One presumes that the pledge of confidentiality binding Novak also gags these reporters, preventing them from pursuing the big story of who leaked, who played the dirty trick, or who may have broken federal law.

The hard-and-fast rules that govern confidential sourcing leave a half-dozen news organizations in a position where they know the leakers' identities as institutions but can't force individual reporters to reveal their names without violating the journalistic taboo of "burning" a confidential source. If the journalists in the know were to surrender the names of their White House sources, they'd be shunned by their peers and (more important) frozen out by future confidential sources because they're untrustworthy. They might as well move their butts over to the obit desk. (One state court has even found that a confidentiality agreement with a reporter is contractual, enforceable by law.)

But it's not like Washington journalists like to play "get the leaker" in the first place. They don't even like to examine the motives of the confidential sources who appear in their own newspapers or the pages of the competition. It's considered poor form in Washington to uncover another reporter's confidential sources, but not because it's bad journalism. Confidential sources are the grease that makes the wheels of Washington journalism turn, and anybody who disturbs the cloak of anonymity undermines what 80 percent of the reporters in town do. Because Washington reporters outnumber worthwhile confidential sources by a ratio of 10 to 1 (or greater), confidential sources can usually pick the most advantageous (to them) terms for dispensing information. For that reason alone, most Washington reporters would rather acquire the other guy's confidential sources than expose them.

This may explain why none of the reporters who talked to the White House sources filed the more newsworthy story: namely, that the normally leak-free administration was attempting to put Ambassador Wilson in an unflattering light by connecting his Niger mission in some nepotistic fashion to his wife's position as a CIA employee, and damage her cover in the process. Any of the reporters could have published a story about how an administration source was talking trash about Wilson without naming Valerie Plame or violating their confidentiality agreements. So, why didn't they? I can only assume that the reporters calculated that with confidential administration sources being so rare these days, they shouldn't do anything that would deter a future leak. So, they ignored the tip and declined to expose the leakers' skulduggery in hopes of getting a different—and perhaps less dicey—story leaked to them later.

The Novak-Wilson-Plame story illustrates in creepy fashion what happens when reporters, especially Washington reporters, become too beholden to their sources. They forget that they're supposed to answer to their readers, not their sources. And when they're obsessed with keeping their confidential sources happy, they end up missing the story.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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