WASHINGTON — When you spend a week in the nation's capital for the annual convention of newspaper editors, you get to hear President Bush, Condi Rice, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and various others generous enough to come and explain their policies.
But a lot of the really inside dope comes from quiet meals and drinks with old, well-placed friends in the administration and Congress and in journalism, who tell you who is misbehaving, who's heading for a fall, who's feuding with whom, and so on. It's understood that all this is off the record, an exchange of useful background information between trusted friends and reliable sources. These sources will remain anonymous to anyone who reads what the journalist may write. They hold positions that make it inadvisable, perhaps even impossible, for them to be quoted by name. A journalist who burns a source, once the compact of confidentiality is made, is toast professionally, and should be.
A good example right now is the story of Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority leader embattled in accusations of scandal. A couple of prominent Republican politicians have called for his resignation but most of his GOP colleagues are diplomatically silent. Publicly, the president told editors he was looking forward to continuing to work with Mr. DeLay. But privately, and with an understanding of confidentiality, powerful members of Congress say DeLay is unlikely to survive and that though the president needs him politically, there's no love lost between them. Anonymous sources? Absolutely. Is this useful? Absolutely. Would I betray them? Absolutely not.
In an ideal world, all sources would be identified in newspaper stories. Ben Bradlee, the former editor of The Washington Post, once tried to enforce that. His edict, as I recall, lasted for just a few days. The Post's sources clammed up, the public was ill-served, and the conclusion was that, especially in Washington, a newspaper that declined to give confidentiality to sources it deemed reliable could not effectively operate.
This debate over anonymous sources is particularly timely right now because Judith Miller, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter with The New York Times, may go to jail for 18 months, along with Time reporter Matthew Cooper, for not revealing their sources to an inquiring special prosecutor. Ms. Miller doesn't want to go to prison, she told a few of us last week, but she will because she thinks there's a principle involved. She's right. Not only is her case being carefully watched by US journalists, but also by foreign journalists. They say that US press freedoms have been an inspiration and example to them, and the imprisonment of journalists like Miller will have drastic consequences in countries where press freedoms are fragile.
Ms. Miller and Mr. Cooper are pawns in a controversial case fraught with political overtones, in which the prosecutor is hunting for the government leaker who disclosed the name of an undercover CIA agent, ValeriePlame. That's a crime. But Miller never used the leak in a Times story, nor did Cooper in the print edition of Time. Ironically, nothing has happened to Robert Novak, the columnist who actually did publish the leaker's information. More ironically, nothing is likely to happen to two senators - Indiana Republican Richard Lugar and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry - who publicly identified another undercover CIA agent, Fulton Armstrong, at last week's confirmation hearings for John Bolton, Bush's nominee for UN ambassador. (Mr. Bolton had been trying to keep that agent's identity confidential.)
The responsible reporter must always ask why a source who wants to remain anonymous is giving the information in question. The reporter must beware of shady sources trying to plant inaccurate stories. The reporter must try to persuade the source to go on the record and, if the source won't, must try to cross-check the information.
Great justice has ensued from sources that had to remain anonymous but who have offered information about grave misdeeds in government, politics, or corporate life. Probably the best known - or still the best unknown - anonymous source was "Deep Throat," without whom the excesses of Watergate would never have been told.
Believing reporters are protected by the First Amendment, 31 states have enacted shield laws to protect journalists from being forced to divulge the identity of their sources. A federal law is moving through Congress. It may be too late for Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper, but it should be passed.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City.