Journalists aren't above the law

Going to jail for one's convictions and to honor one's word to a confidant is a commendable personal act. And, as that is the path Judith Miller and the New York Times have chosen to take, their decision can be respected. But, having taken that path, they cannot evade the consequences of their contempt of court. And they ought to stop whining about it.

The law is the law.

As for the press's claim to an absolute right to protect sources, even in criminal cases where the Supreme Court has ruled against them, it is preposterous. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been questioned in the case of "Who outed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative?" What gives Ms. Miller her special exemption - a New York Times press card?

As for Miller's statement, on being escorted off to jail, that "if journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality ... there cannot be a free press," it, too, is ridiculous. The press has never had a federal shield law. Has the American press never been free? Who do the media think they are?

If President Nixon had no right under executive privilege to protect the confidentiality of tapes containing his most private conversations with White House aides, where do Miller and the Times come off claiming an absolute right to protect notes and contents of her conversations with White House aides?

The Times hailed the court decision forcing Nixon to surrender his tapes. On what principle does the Times now stand - for it is surely not the law - to defy the Supreme Court and refuse to surrender its notes?

The First Amendment? But that amendment guarantees the right of all of us to write and publish. It does not place the working press above other Americans, all of whom, as US Judge Thomas Hogan ruled, have an obligation to give testimony to a grand jury.

Lest we forget, it was the Big Media that beat the drums for this investigation. When columnist Robert Novak reported that ex-Ambassador Joe Wilson had been sent to look into the claim that Iraq had sought yellowcake from Niger because his wife, a CIA analyst, had recommended him, it was the Big Media that demanded the Bush White House be turned upside down to find the source who had outed Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame.

The press got the investigation it demanded. And Attorney General Ashcroft, as the press demanded, brought in a bulldog from Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, to remove any suggestion of Justice Department bias toward the White House. But when the bulldog began to bark that the press must cooperate in the investigation it had demanded, the press howled.

The press's performance has been comical. All over town, there are journalists who know who did the leaking. But instead of revealing the names, the media demanded that Justice launch an investigation to discover the culprits, whose names they already knew.

Now Miller is in jail playing First Amendment heroine, as Time magazine, facing stiff fines, has capitulated and turned over its notes to Fitzgerald, and reporter Matt Cooper is headed for the grand jury.

What a PR debacle for the national press.

While the media may claim Miller and the Times are standing on principle to protect whistle-blowers, they are doing the opposite. They are covering up for White House aides who may have committed a crime by outing the wife of the whistle-blower as a CIA operative.

Miller is going to jail, and the Times is being fined for covering up for the very people the mainstream media demanded be exposed.

Is there a reporter's privilege to protect his sources? Surely, there is a tradition and an obligation, if a newsman has pledged confidentiality to a source, to keep one's word. But why should this be enshrined in federal law?

Journalists equate their relationship with sources to the lawyer-client, doctor-patient, priest-penitent privileges. But the lawyer protects the constitutional rights of the accused. The doctor protects the privacy of a patient. A priest protects a man confessing his sins. These privileges are not designed to protect lawyers, doctors, or priests, but those they defend, treat, or heal.

What shield laws do are empower journalists to protect themselves from having to testify, and, second, to protect the leakers, liars, slanderers, thieves, crooks, and criminals who are happy to feed them, as well as the whistle-blowers. Shield laws put journalists above every other American.

Freedom of the press is a right that belongs to all of us, from Times reporters to bloggers to kids writing about pot parties for the high school paper. Why then should only working reporters be exempt from the law that requires all of us, from presidents to paupers, to testify, when called before a grand jury? It is time for the press to give up its pretense to being some special priestly class and return to earth.

We are not better than, nor are we above, the people we write about. Get over it. We are the good, the bad, and the ugly, just like everyone else.

Patrick J. Buchanan, a senior adviser to three presidents, was director of communications in the Ronald Reagan White House. ©2005 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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