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Leigh R.
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Former official at, State Dept, Office of the Secy of Defense, Interior Department, Energy Department and FAA.Lobbyist, foreign agent, lawyer, reading, photographer, cabinet maker. He loves most dogs (more than most people), opera (the Italians), international travel, classical music

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Salon.com
JUNE 22, 2009 2:35PM

Hypothetical: Would you trust a reporter with your life?

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A journalist at the Huffington Post, in speaking of the taking and escape of David Rhode from guerrillas, terrorists, defenders of the faith, kooks or think thesauraus  in part had this to say this morning:

My magazine, Editor & Publisher, was among the media outlets aware, very early on (probably ahead of many others), that Rohde had been snatched along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. I can't even recall how we learned of it. Like others, we did not write about it, even after New York Times editors confirmed it for us, off the record, of course. Times executive editor Bill Keller today told our Joe Strupp that we were among at least 40 news outlets that knew about the kidnapping.

In fact, what I witnessed in the six months after we found out about it was the most amazing press blackout on a major event that I have ever seen: at least in the case of a story involving such a prominent news outlet and a leading reporter. I wonder how strongly, if at all, this non-reporting will be criticized in the weeks to come.

If David Rohde had been a lawyer, a doctor, a trash collector or a toll taker would the forty odd newspapers and e-papers who held their tongues to save his life have all refrained from that empathic understanding of the hidden ethics of the journalism :"I don't evaluate. If its news I write about it."

 Those who follow my writing on OS know that I have been in the "Washington trades" since I was twenty four. I am now seventy. In that time, I have never successfully been able to argue a case to a reporter that my future should come ahead of their "news gathering and publishing". I can remember at least a dozen of those where my professional life was endangered by reporters who gave me less slack than they gave Rohde.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm glad they gave him and his family the slack he needed to stay alive until he could escape. I'm with President Obama. When you are judging in a legal (or humanistic) sense for God's sake have empathy. No Supreme Court Justice should leave home without it!

I guess my hypothetical question is directed to those of you who are journalists and have views on your profession and where that profession and those views intersect with your ethics.

Journalism without empathy has happened to me several times in my life. Here are only three examples: Once by the Washington Post who splattered me across the front page and six columns inside with a totally false story because, in their words  "If we have two sources we print the story and your denial". They did. But did the reporters do elementary due dilligence to find out the sources were mortal enemies.

 Once by the former New York Times reporter (Judy Miller); may her career rest in peace because my father was dying and her article might finish him off.

And in a rare but easily understandable semi-exception, the Wall Street Journal. I wanted the right of final editorial approval but I had some leverage. In exchange for final editorial approval they got a front page right hand column story out of me which revealed a pending decision by the President. But, based on my long experience in Washington I still waited for the delivery of the Wall Street Journal that morning with my heart racing at 140 beats per minute and my teeth chattering. They kept their bargain. But I was never really 100 % sure they would. 

Another thought in passing: If leaking classified information is unlawful (unless the President decides to do it as Bush claimed he had the right to do), aren't reporters who routinely print classified leaks, which by definition are harmful to the national security if published,  co-conspirators, accomplices before or after the fact and treasonous? Does freedom of the press extend to the publication of  secret information which was legitimately classified by the Government?  We know the first amendment is not an absolute right. Various Supremes have made that clear. Is this the sort of area where a bright line should be drawn? Classified? Okay. Life endangering? Discretionary. Professional career endangerment? Fair Play.

  

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It's obvious that you have an axe to grind but without the context in which these things happened, it's difficult to formulate an opinion. It shocks me that anyone would be given editorial approval over a column or anything else, although I'm not so naive as to believe that it never happens. Things have apparently changed a lot since I went to J-school and worked full time in newspapers.

But in response to your question about trusting a reporter with your life: it would depend on the reporter.
Emma, I have no axe to grind. It has been several decades since I was burned by a reporter. I asked that my comments be viewed as hypothetical. If you do, it doesn't matter what the context is because you can assume for the sake of argument that I didn't leave out any relevant facts. (The same assumption we are all asked to make everyday about the writings of all journalists.)

But it might have been more clear if I had reduced my proposition to a more abstract principle. When the founders wisely provided for "freedom of the press" should one assume that they meant to give such freedoms to journalists who could and might hurt, maim and ruin lives, families, careers, and other valuables through carelessness, deliberate animus or youth (with virtually a complete lack of meaningful supervision)? When they gave all of us the freedom of speech did they mean to include pornography, flag burning or stirring up a violent riot ?

When I was a young lawyer I felt very deeply about the absolute nature of "freedom of speech" and was appalled as I read the Supreme Court opinions which put limits on that freedom. But as my hair has fallen out and what's left has grayed, I began to realize that nobody should have absolute power over anything. Isn't the whole purpose of our republican form of democracy to protect the people against two dangers. First is the danger of absolute political power by a single person or group of people no matter how large and second the danger of absolute freedom taken to such an extreme that it could seriously endanger the safety and welfare of the majority? (It should go without saying that the central purpose of these freedoms in the Bill of Rights was to protect the minority from being subjected to the absolute power of the majority. I am simply asking to go a level further in our analysis and wonder aloud if a twenty two or twenty five year old reporter should, for example, have the "freedom" to jeopardize the ability of another person to obtain due process of law in a trial by, for example, exposing information which a judge decided to keep "in camera". The gift of absolute power to a single journalist over the fortunes of another person is sort of like a "kangaroo court" isn't it? There is no lawyer on the other side to say "I object your honor" nor a judge trying to be as fair and objective as possible in ruling on the objections.

When you are splashed across the front page of a major American newspaper you can never get your side of the story told, much less in compelling bold seventy point type.

I was ready to applaud the Senate when it approves our new latina Justice. Until I heard her say that the judge should not use empathy in his decision making process contrary to the publicly stated objectives of the President who nominated her. I would, on those grounds alone, oppose her confirmation, and my voice would be lost in a sea of Republicans with no aim in site other than to regain power over the people. My lonely voice would be unlikely to make the front page above or below the fold. And as a result the people would be deprived of the most important issue in the confirmation of Justices. Should they be empathic? Consider that they are the final voice on life and death, fortune and poverty, prosperity and depression. Would Bryan Williams have seen fit to mention my reason for opposing her confirmation on his Nightly News?

I suppose all of this is provoked by the death of Walter Cronkite. I cannot think of another voice uttering the news on television who could be trusted as he could be. Good journalism has a long way to go; as does good lawyering. Yet the country seems to be moving in the opposite direction. I fear historians will refer to the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty first century as "the age of the sound-bite.

In my experience as a lawyer, I have been exposed to the wit of many humorists and would be humorists with their "lawyer jokes" which in my youthful innocence I found offensive. As I aged, I realized that many of those jokes were funny. Some were stupid. Some were crude. But I could always recognize the grain of truth that gave rise to the joke in the first place.

We are on a very delicate and fragile balancing scale. A mere feather on one side could upset the balance. I was just thinking that it would be good, particularly in this age of amateur journalism on the internet if anyone who wanted to claim freedom of the press also looked very hard in the mirror to see if the reflection was true.

I'm sure most of us liberals laugh at Bill Maher's jokes. He and his staff are clever people. But have you noticed that he does not claim a "freedom of the press"----only freedom of speech? His facts are almost always wrong or perilously abbreviated and his opinions frequently mislead an adoring audience. But if he claimed Freedom of the Press; the right to be an educator of the American people, we would demand more of him, I hope.

Perhaps in my post I was trapped by the very process I am criticizing. I was much too dramatic and abbreviated in my effort to provoke readers into commenting.