Journalists — like people in other lines of work — love to puff up their own importance. And since journalists have access to lots of newspaper space, they have ample opportunity to sell this storyline to the public.
And so, in recent weeks, the American media have been celebrating their commitment to journalistic principles and lauding the heroism of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for going to jail rather than revealing a source.
This is nonsense. The jailing of Miller isn't a story about press freedom. It's a story about how the Bush administration shamelessly attempts to manipulate the "free press" and largely succeeds.
The real hero isn't Miller; it's Joseph Wilson. The former U.S. ambassador was sent by the CIA to Africa in 2002 to investigate claims that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from Niger — a claim that was central to the White House justification for its invasion of Iraq.
After an investigative trip to Africa, Wilson reported back that the claim was bogus.
But the White House was determined to invade Iraq anyway and so continued to publicly make the claim, including in George Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. Appalled, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times blowing the whistle on the administration's deceitfulness.
The White House responded by trying to discredit Wilson.
Top White House operative Karl Rove, speaking to a journalist at Time magazine and probably to others, suggested that Wilson lacked credibility and that he'd been selected for the Africa trip by his wife, who worked undercover for the CIA. In so doing, Rove effectively identified Wilson's wife as a CIA operative, raising the possibility that Rove broke a law against exposing undercover agents.
Miller also spoke to a White House official about Wilson's wife, although she didn't write about it. Previously, Miller was best known for writing hair-raising — and grossly inaccurate, anonymously sourced — accounts of Saddam's weaponry, bolstering the administration's case for war.
When a legal investigation was launched into the exposing of Wilson's wife, Miller, apparently keen to preserve her White House connections, refused to reveal whom she'd talked to and was sent to jail.
It's hard to see this as a journalistic triumph.
Surely protecting sources is about protecting people who take risks in order to get important information out to the public, not about protecting powerful officials who try to smear whistleblowers and use the press to keep the public in the dark about crucially important matters — like the fabrication of the case for war.
Rove should have been fired long ago for masterminding deceptions on Iraq, but now more than ever.
And if journalists are willing to sacrifice themselves to defend a journalistic principle, they should skip the jail-time histrionics and just do their jobs properly. They could start with exposing the administration's deceit about Iraq, instead of leaving all the heavy lifting to Wilson.
Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and commentator.
© 2005 The Star