Paul Holmes

The NY Times' stance in the Miller affair has struck a blow against the First Amendment

The NY Times' stance in the Miller affair has struck a blow against the First Amendment

More than once, I've described myself in these columns as a First Amendment fundamentalist, which is why I support Time magazine's decisions to hand over notes of Matthew Cooper's conversations about Valerie Plame and why I'd like to see Judith Miller of The New York Times languish in prison until she starts to value free expression as much as she apparently values her high-placed cronies in the Bush administration.

Yes, I know the Times - in editorials that are self-righteous even by its smug standards - is trying to position itself as a defender of journalistic integrity. And yes, I know the majority of media outlets, along with several PR organizations, have swallowed that line. They've all got it backwards.

By protecting their source, Miller and the Times are defending the right of vast and powerful institutions - in this case, the Bush administration - to intimidate those who would use the media to blow the whistle on corruption, dishonesty, and abuse of power. (What makes this case painfully ironic is that the medium Joseph Wilson used as a conduit for whistle-blowing was none other than the Times itself.)

While Karl Rove's comments to Cooper were clearly designed to discredit Wilson, they were also designed to send a signal to other potential whistle-blowers that the administration would go to extraordinary lengths to punish them for their disloyalty. The implicit message: "If we're prepared to blow the cover of a serving CIA officer, imagine how far we will go to make your life miserable if you dare to cross us."

When government is prepared to go to such extremes of intimidation, and when reporters are prepared to cover up for it, freedom of the press is not much more than an abstract concept.

What makes this case even more staggering is that the reporters in question went on protecting their "source" even when it became apparent he or she had lied to at least one of them (telling Cooper that Plame had arranged Wilson's trip, something she was not nearly senior enough to have done). Normally, the fact that a source was providing disinformation rather than information would be considered a breach of any implied contract.

So it seems likely that Miller is protecting a powerful figure she can't afford to alienate rather than a journalistic principle. This is a reporter, after all, who was instrumental in providing unquestioning third-party endorsement to the administration's lies about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

So those concerned with real freedom of the press - journalists and PR people - must ask if the cause of free speech is best served by allowing the government to intimidate people whose only crime is to speak out courageously in the media.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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