Editors play it safe as US reporter is jailed

By Jeffrey Blyth in New York

While New York Times reporter Judith Miller is languishing in a
detention centre outside Washington, the biggest debate in American
journalism gets more heated every day: was she right in refusing to
name a confidential source?

Most working journalists feel she was right to defy the court
otherwise, say some, they will end up rewriting handouts or press
releases. But some editors are not so sure.

One of America’s
biggest dailies, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has revealed that when the
Miller case came to court, it was about to publish two important
stories following an in-depth investigation that including talking to
anonymous sources.

Now it has decided not to run the stories,
even though it considers them important. After consulting with lawyers,
editor Doug Clinton decided the stories – based on what might now be
regarded as illegally leaked documents – could lead to penalties
against the paper and the jailing of reporters.

“This is a super, super, very high risk,” the lawyers told him.

Such is the feeling in many American newspaper offices at the moment.

However,
there are some editors who claim they would not, in similar
circumstances, back off. One example is the Wall Street Journal, whose
managing editor Paul Steiger said he couldn’t understand, if the
reporters involved had done nothing illegal, why any paper would be
reluctant to run a story.

That, of course, is one of the oddities
of the Miller case. She never wrote a story that could have landed her
in prison. She interviewed someone about a suspected secret CIA
operative, the wife of a well-known former American diplomat, but the
story never made print.

Nevertheless, government investigators –
some say at the insistence of the White House – want to know her
source. Many reports have said the informant was top presidential
consultant Karl Rove, an advisor to President Bush, who was supposedly
irritated by some of the former diplomat’s anti-Iraq war comments.

Meanwhile,
how is Miller bearing up? According to the New York Times, as a veteran
57-year-old journalist who spent some time in Iraq, she is handling the
situation stoically.

She is in detention in a “prison without bars” just outside Washington.

The Times says it’s overcrowded and she is sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

But she is allowed access to a telephone (collect calls only) and can listen to the radio, watch TV and play cards.

Talking
to one of her editors on the phone, she described her jailing as
surrealistic, especially after being driven in shackles though
Washington past many of the places she used to work.

“My God,” she said. “How did I come to this?”

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