I've been out for most of the day enjoying the city with my wife. And I haven't yet had the intestinal fortitude to dive into the Times
lengthy and multiple treatment of its role in the Plame Affair. But a lot of attention in the blogs already seems to be focusing on this passage in Judy Miller's apologia
Mr. Fitzgerald asked about a notation I made on the first page of my notes about this July 8 meeting, "Former Hill staffer."
My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a "senior administration official." When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a "former Hill staffer." I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.
Did Mr. Libby explain this request? Mr. Fitzgerald asked. No, I don't recall, I replied. But I said I assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson.
I got an email about this. And I've read around the blogs to see other responses. So I thought about <$NoAd$> writing a post trying to give some background about whether this is a normal or accepted practice among reporters.
The first part of an answer is to say, no, I would never agree to that sort of sourcing or those sorts of ground rules. And I can't imagine that many other journalists would either. But I think the more revealing detail is that I do not think I've ever even been asked
I'm certainly not what you'd call a veteran reporter. But I've been doing this for a living for about eight years and I've reported on a number of quite sensitive intelligence and national security stories in which the revelation of the sources of particular pieces of information could have had very immediate real-world implications. And just off the top of my head, thinking it over this evening, I can't come up with a memory of a situation in which a source has asked me to identify them in this way. And by 'this way' I mean in a fashion that is technically accurately but intentionally and willfully misleading to readers
What happens very often is that you get in wrestling matches with sources over specificity -- with the reporter always wanting more detail and the source usually wanting to keep things as vague as possible.
Occasionally you will end up with formulations that amount to little more than 'said a human being in Washington who was knowledgeable about this subject.'
That's never a satisfactory solution; but occasionally it's unavoidable. And behind it is almost always -- from my experience at least -- a frustrated calculus the reporter has made that the information is illuminating and revealing enough of the truth of the story to justify not being able to give your readers a very clear idea just where you got it.
These are cases where the reader has to have a lot of trust in the journalist; and the journalist has to be really honest with him or herself.
For instance, such vague sourcing would seldom be justified where the information was subjective description or opinion. Blind quotes of one person trashing another seldom make for good journalism. And if they're used they should always come with at least a reasonably specific return address. Otherwise you're just laundering vituperation or calumny.
The cases where I've agreed to very vague identification of a source have mostly been cases where a particular piece of factual information was known only to a very small number or just a handful of people (think intel and national security reporting) and where providing even very limited description would be tantamount to exposing the source.
Like I said, in those cases you make a judgment about whether the information is probative enough to justify withholding from readers even very general information about its source.
I could spin out numerous hypotheticals. And this is probably already more information than most folks want. But in this case it certainly seems as though the tacit bargain between Miller and Libby was that Libby would provide Miller with information in exchange for her assistance in deceiving her readers. And that violates the rule or principle that amounts to the Occam's Razor of journalistic ethics -- fundamental honesty with your readers.