The Promise Keepers

The other day a panel that had assembled to talk about accuracy in journalism to University of Missouri J-school alumni in Chicago kicked around the Dan Rather fiasco. A panelist who wondered where the phony memos came from and how they wound up on the air called for “transparency” in journalism. Everyone agreed that we deserve a look at the sausage as it’s made.

Afterward I asked the panelist, associate dean Esther Thorson, and the moderator, Dean Mills, dean of the school of journalism, if it followed–transparency being the watchword–that Robert Novak had a moral obligation to tell us which Bush administration officials tipped him off that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. They didn’t think so. In that situation, one said, transparency would mean doing a better job of explaining to the public why the secret must be kept. But I’m not sure there’s any pane of glass so clear that the media’s silence can be admired behind it.

Acting on principle would enjoy a better reputation if it didn’t so often mean acting in ways that are perverse, self-defeating, and incomprehensible to the laity. The Vietnam war was America’s principled way of telling the Soviets, “We’re so determined to stop communism that we’ll fight a war for ten years that makes no sense. Imagine how hard we’d fight if we were actually attacked.” The Valerie Plame affair finds journalists assuring sources present and future, “We even protect government scuzzballs when they break federal law to screw their enemies. So you know we’ll stand up for you.”

The Plame scandal had about as much heft as the Rather scandal, but it happened last summer and would be forgotten by now if not for the special prosecutor who’s supposedly turning over every rock in Washington to get to the bottom of Novak’s expose. We’re reminded of his probe whenever a judge rejects the privilege claim of some subpoenaed reporter who possibly heard from the same source and orders him or her to appear before the grand jury. It’s not clear whether Novak himself has been subpoenaed–on the advice of counsel, he’s not talking.

In the Rather scandal a famous news operation was duped. In the Novak scandal a famous journalist apparently was used by Bush operatives to get back at Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, who’d written a piece in the New York Times a few days earlier accusing the Bush administration of distorting intelligence to sell the war in Iraq. Rather got his story wrong, and now CBS is fessing up and trying to explain how it happened. Novak is a much more interesting case. He got his tawdry story, so now he’s saying nothing and expecting journalists to admire him for it.

After the conference Thorson and I exchanged e-mails, and she told me the conditions under which protecting a source trumps transparency. “First, you have to have created credibility and trust via previous transparency; otherwise no one will believe you anyway, anonymous source or not! And second you’d better be real sure that you are really having to protect your sources from danger–not just being lazy or overhyping your and your source’s importance!”

Danger? Novak’s sources are in danger of being indicted for breaking a federal law. “Is this the sort of peril a journalist should take a bullet for?” I asked Thorson. She replied that if the reporter promised anonymity, then his or her willingness to take a bullet should be assumed. “Indeed, wouldn’t that always be the case if your word was your bond?”

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, weighed in on Novak and Plame last month during a panel discussion in Washington sponsored by the First Amendment Center. “This has really hit a nerve in the journalists’ community,” she said. “But by and large, I think the larger principle is going to prevail, and that is, when you’re a journalist and you make a promise to a source you keep your promise.”

This first principle is taught at Columbia, Missouri, and finer journalism schools everywhere. As stated by Dalglish, it gleams with virtue. But the gleam diminished as Dalglish continued. Journalists “need to be perceived and regarded as being independent sources of information. If they are viewed or in fact become agents of the government, agents of the defense counsel, agents of civil litigants and participants in the legal process, their ability to react independently will be greatly damaged.” But Novak is being viewed as an agent–make that tool–of the government, or at least of a couple of White House henchmen. His silence protects them.

When I wrote about Novak and Plame in August I got a provocative letter from Ron Dorfman, a friend who years ago was a founder of the old Chicago Journalism Review. He asked, “Doesn’t anyone remember that it was a real reporter, Sidney Zion, who figured out that Daniel Ellsberg was the leaker of the Pentagon Papers and named him in a radio report within days of the first installment of the NYT series? The Times would have gone to its death protecting Ellsberg’s identity, but Zion–long gone from the paper–was under no such obligation and, since the leaker’s identity was, like, real news–remember that?–a real reporter went after it.

“So where are the real reporters in Washington, where the press corps includes probably a baker’s dozen who have some inkling of who Novak’s source is, are not under omerta with respect to same, and, with a few phone calls, could nail it down and publish? Wouldn’t they do that if they learned the true identity of Deep Throat?”

Zion’s still around, writing a column for the New York Daily News. Last January he wrote one comparing himself to Novak. “While I was a pariah for helping Ellsberg, Novak has been treated by the media as a swell guy. He has been on all the usual talking-heads shows–nobody bothers him at all. And all he did was to expose a covert CIA agent.”

Yes, Zion has persuaded himself that by exposing Ellsberg he actually helped him–by giving him the heads-up that let him go underground, avoid arrest, and remain free to distribute the Pentagon Papers to other newspapers. Zion overestimates Ellsberg’s gratitude. Nevertheless, the expose was, as Dorfman put it, real news.

I called Zion, read Dorfman’s letter to him, and asked him to comment. “If this happened in New York they couldn’t get away with this crap,” he said. “Maybe Chicago too. I can’t imagine the great reporters in the whole history of Chicago would just sit there and do nothing. All I can say is there’s sort of a protective society in Washington. It befuddles me. Maybe they’re afraid if they broke who the source was they’d be in front of a court [asking], ‘Tell me who your source is.'”

Could be. Why go to the trouble of naming Novak’s leaker if as soon as you do you’ll be subpoenaed and threatened with contempt of court and jail by a special prosecutor demanding to know how you found out? Besides, it’s not like the rest of us have no idea who one of the two people Novak says he talked to might have been. It’s common knowledge that subpoenaed reporters are being asked about conversations with Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.

On September 28 Ellsberg wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times in which he regretted nothing except not revealing what he knew about the Vietnam war back in 1964, when he had a key planning job in the State Department. “Surely there are officials in the present administration who recognize that the United States has been misled into a war in Iraq,” he wrote, and he begged them to break their silence. When he anonymously broke his own in 1971 he became a hero to reporters, and not just the reporters he fed the Pentagon Papers to. That’s why Zion became a pariah.

Reporters respect their own secrets a lot more than anyone else’s. Because Rather got a big story so wrong everyone at the Mizzou event seemed comfortable touting transparency. But despite our buzzwords, rarely do we open each other’s curtains.

Statistics Don’t Lie . . . or Do They?

You’re a pathetic, reactionary old fool, I told my friend A.E. Eyre.

Eyre had just disagreed with me about Ichiro Suzuki’s gallant pursuit of the single-season hit record George Sisler set back in 1920. Eyre pointed out that back then Sisler got his 257 hits in a 154-game season. Suzuki was seven hits shy after Seattle’s 154th game, but he had another eight games to go.

Progressive thinkers don’t care how long the season is, I said.

Eyre’s eyes widened contemptuously. “At the rate Suzuki’s hitting, he’ll get 12 or 13 more hits in those eight games. That’s a huge advantage.”

At one point I would have agreed. But that was before Ron Rapoport at the Sun-Times put me on to a story in the September 26 Seattle Times. Baseball reporter Larry Stone had gone straight to the source–the Elias Sports Bureau, official statistician of Major League Baseball. “One hundred and fifty-four games has no official meaning,” executive vice president Steve Hirdt told Stone. “It’s an advance in civilization made from 1961 until now–cell phones, computers, and there’s no longer rigid insistence on breaking records in 154 games.”

Sorry, old-timer, I said to Eyre, but civilization moved on and left you at the station.

“You stupid twit,” said Eyre. “Numbers don’t go in and out of fashion.”

The debate goes back to 1961, when the American League–and only the American League–went to a 162-game schedule and alarmists predicted the collapse of the record book. Only one record fell, but it was a doozy–Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs.

Every schoolboy can tell the story. How commissioner Ford Frick, who in his salad days had been Ruth’s crony and ghostwriter, wanted to protect his pal’s place in history and so decreed that unless Roger Maris hit his 61st home run within 154 games, Ruth’s mark would stand. How Frick’s edict compounded the torments the introverted Maris suffered that difficult season, no doubt hastening his premature death at 51.

Eyre sneered. “Maris played seven more years, including five more World Series, and was set up with a beer distributorship when he retired. We should all suffer such torment. Besides, what Frick actually did was poll baseball writers and then take their advice. The point is, Frick was right.”

As an unappreciated genius and lifelong mope, my friend has always puzzled me with his unwillingness to take Maris’s side. I’ve even heard him say Frick is the true underdog in this saga, since he challenged emotion with reason and took the usual drubbing. Hoping to change Eyre’s mind, I read key sections of Stone’s article aloud. For several years Ruth’s mark and Maris’s mark were listed in the official record book together, the length of each season noted. But in 1991 commissioner Fay Vincent convened a “committee on statistical accuracy,” and it purged Ruth’s mark from the record book on the principle that “a season is a season.” Maris’s 61 taters stood alone.

“Oh, yes,” said Eyre, “the famous committee on statistical accuracy, often recalled in the same breath with the Constitutional Convention and the Council of Trent. To better judge the quality of the committee’s cogitations, I suggest you refer to the sacred text itself, the Elias Book of Baseball Records. Look under no-hitters.”

The Elias Book of Baseball Records contains a long list of no-hit games and a separate list of no-hit games that were stopped short of the usual nine innings. I called Seymour Siwoff, president of Elias and a member of the committee on statistical accuracy, and he offered an explanation. “Because of the uniqueness of not giving up a hit it was decided that you had to pitch at least nine innings,” he told me. I reported my findings to Eyre.

“So a season is a season, but a game is not a game?” he said. “Who was on this committee anyway?”

In addition to various baseball figures, I said, there was a history professor and a sociology professor.

“No engineers?” said Eyre.


“Regrettable omission,” he said. “Baseball loves statistics, but the relationship is empty-headed and sentimental. Engineers understand that numbers actually mean something. Imagine a structural engineer designing his floors to support a load of 154 pounds per square inch. And when the load comes in at 162 pounds per square inch, the engineer says, ‘Whatever.'”

Eyre was arguing with a passion I could not account for. Normally it shows itself only as he recounts the circumstances of his own unjustly ignored literary career. Is this really about Suzuki? I asked. Or is he some sort of surrogate for the cooked books, demagogic pandering, and empty values that sicken you about these times we live in?

“None of that,” said Eyre with an air of melancholy. “George Sisler was a Saint Louis Brown.”

News Bite

On September 27 Robert Novak published a critical column on someone Daniel Ellsberg would probably approve of–CIA intelligence officer Paul Pillar. According to Novak, Pillar had told a select audience on the west coast a few days earlier that “he and his colleagues concluded early in the Bush administration that military intervention in Iraq would intensify anti-American hostility throughout Islam.”

In its own article on Pillar a day later the New York Times referred to Novak’s “column published Monday in The Washington Post.” It was, but it was also published Monday in the Sun-Times, which is nominally Novak’s home newspaper. You can see how much that matters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP Photo–Suzanne Plunkett, Brooks Kraft–Corbis.