Serving their sources or the public?

The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, and recent disclosures about the relationship of CNBC's Maria Bartiromo with a banking executive are shining a harsh light on the sometimes overly symbiotic relationships between reporters and their sources.

In the Libby trial, some of Washington's highest-profile journalists -- including NBC's Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, and Judith Miller, formerly with The New York Times -- have been forced to explain under oath the intricacies of their off-the-record dealings with White House officials, something that normally stays well hidden.


Bartiromo, a 39-year-old financial reporter and anchor, has faced questions from other journalists about her relationship with Citigroup's Todd Thomson, which led to his ouster last month as chief of the bank's wealth management unit. Her job has so far been unaffected.

While reporters who cover politicians and corporate executives have little choice but to cultivate confidential sources to cover their beats properly, journalism critics say that some of those relationships are too cozy, too self-serving and, ultimately, harmful to the notion of a free press.


John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, a media watchdog group, said "star" journalists and government officials "go to the same parties" and "rely on each other in many ways that are invisible to the public, that often involve trading favors mutually beneficial to their careers in the media or in government."

Stauber, the co-author, with Sheldon Rampton, of The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq (Tarcher, 2006), said the Iraq war was possible only "because most of the mainstream media became like a propaganda arm of the Bush administration" and failed to point out that "the best available evidence indicated no relationship between Saddam and 9/11, no relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda, and no active WMD program in Iraq."

While some journalists did question the Bush administration's justifications for the war, the perception remains that, to retain their access to high-profile White House sources, the Washington press corps largely did not delve into why administration officials seemed intent on revealing the identity of an undercover CIA officer whose husband was a prominent critic of President Bush's Iraq policies.

That question is at the heart of the Libby trial. He is facing perjury and obstruction charges in connection with the probe into the leak of the CIA agent's name to several reporters, including The Washington Post's Bob Woodward; Matt Cooper, formerly of Time magazine; and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak, who was the first to reveal the agent's identity in print.

As media critic Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the Libby trial's "unintended seminar in contemporary journalism" shows that Cheney and his staff believe that truth is malleable and that they knew some members of the Washington press corps would "cynically accommodate that belief for the sake of their careers."

"It's a sick little arrangement," Rutten wrote, "in which the parties clearly have one thing in common: a profound indifference to both the common good and to their obligation to act in its service."

Bob Steele, a senior faculty member in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the Libby case "may be one of those where veteran journalists are prone to too easily and too quickly give the protection of confidentiality" to a source.

"Sometimes it happens out of a sense of familiarity and the kind of give-and-take relationship between a reporter and a government official, a law enforcement officer, the coach of a team or a business executive -- someone the journalist covers regularly," Steele said. But such protection "should be well down on the list of options that the journalist chooses for gaining information," he said.


Either way, he went on, the use of anonymous sources "diminishes the accuracy of a story if names are not included," and "reduces the accountability of the source, particularly if the source is making allegations."

In Bartiromo's case, some of the questions centered on speaking engagements she undertook at Citigroup events and on trips she made on a Citigroup corporate jet at Thomson's invitation. The network says it reimbursed Citigroup for the flights' cost and says her activities were proper. Since 2004, Bartiromo has aired 11 major pieces on Citigroup, including four interviews with Thomson, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

"Was her independence and that of CNBC eroded because of the multiple connections Bartiromo had with Todd Thomson?" Steele asked. "There are reasonable questions to be asked about her journalistic independence."

Both the Libby and Bartiromo cases are troublesome for a number of reasons, said Tom Rosensteil, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studies the performance of the press, and author of Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics (Hyperion 1993).

"There's a general perception among the public from both these cases that reporters' loyalties are sometimes mixed and that they have more loyalty to their sources than they do to their audiences and readers," Rosensteil said.

But while Rosensteil sees the danger of overly close relationships between reporters and officials, he also worries that the public will learn less of public wrongdoing if those relationships are eliminated. The Libby trial, he said, has done much harm to those interactions, at least in principle.


"In the most celebrated leak trial of the age, all the reporters who were summoned testified and revealed sources," Rosensteil said. "Despite all the rhetoric, there wasn't great weight put on the significance to society of the press having the freedom to talk to confidential sources."

Some media experts view the parade of reporters on the witness stand in the Libby trial as part of an increasingly visible effort by authorities nationwide to force reporters to reveal publicly the identity of confidential informants.

In California, three journalists have recently run afoul of the law for failing to cooperate with authorities seeking the identies of their sources. Two of them, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle, are facing jail for refusing to reveal the source of transcripts of grand jury testimony in an investigation of steroids given to professional baseball players. Each was sentenced to up to 18 months in prison, but both remain free while an appeals court considers their case.

They are not without supporters. The Chronicle reported that 36 news organizations, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the three main broadcast networks; a variety of publishing companies and trade organizations; and several legal scholars have filed briefs with the appeals court. So have the attorneys general of New York and California, who argued that before a federal court could obligate reporters to give up their sources, it must show that "the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in confidentiality."

In the third California case, Josh Wolf, a 24-year-old freelance videographer, has served more than 170 days in jail -- earning him the dubious distinction of having been incarcerated longer than any journalist in modern U.S. history -- after refusing prosecutors' demands that he turn over his footage of an anticapitalist demonstration in San Francisco in July 2005 and testify before a grand jury investigating possible charges against protesters. During the protest, a San Francisco police car was torched and an officer suffered a fractured skull, the Associated Press reported.

Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild, said in a statement about Wolf's plight that forcing journalists to testify about their work "is a bad signal sent to the rest of the world."


"What was once a cherished constitutional mandate that journalists operate free from government interference increasingly has come under attack," Foley said.

But such lofty concerns fall on deaf ears when some reporters are seen as colluding with corporate executives and government officials, instead of maintaining a skeptical distance.

The obvious example is Miller, whose reporting on weapons of mass destruction in The New York Times left her open to charges that she did not see through what critics call the misinformation campaign launched by White House officials bent on war and by Iraqi exiles who hoped the U.S. would topple Saddam Hussein.

Eric Boehlert, the author of Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2006), said that Miller was "essentially a policy advocate" for the White House before the Iraq invasion. Her reporting helped the administration "advance its argument for war," Boehlert said.

What's worse, he said, is that journalists like The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, as well as Cooper and Russert, "ran away" from the Iraq story.

"It was sort of Watergate in reverse," Boehlert said. "Instead of trying to uncover the truth, a lot of them were trying to bury it. The unfortunate consequence is that people continue to have serious doubts about how the press behaves."