Category Archives: Accident

Rules for the breaking

Despite the originary fallaciousness of the whole affair–a schoolyard ad hominem attack on Joseph Wilson–we haven’t bothered to comment on all of the silliness surrounding the Judith Miller jailing. No *serious* person would argue that Judith Miller deserves to be jailed *now* for her shoddy Iraq WMD coverage (as with much of the media, perhaps far below what might be considered minimally competent source and fact research), but that doesn’t stop the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen from bravely taking on some in the blogosphere who would argue as much. What Cohen does in much of today’s piece is not really fallacioius, it’s just silly. Why waste precious space in a newspaper of national circulation refuting the opinions of people who refute themselves? Cohen’s failures lie elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his insistence on the absolute applicability of the confidentiality pledge:

Whatever her politics, whatever her journalistic sins (if any), whatever the whatevers, she is in jail officially for keeping her pledge not to reveal the identity of a confidential source. (If that’s not the case, then we don’t know otherwise.) That pledge is no different than the one Bob Woodward made to Mark (Deep Throat) Felt or, if you will, the one I made to my sources back when I was revealing some unsavory facts about Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Only Agnew’s unexpected, but deeply appreciated, resignation saved me from going to jail. Like Miller, I thought my word was my word. Jail was something a journalist had to endure on occasion. It is, to quote “The Godfather’s” Hyman Roth, “the business we have chosen.”

The problem is that not all confidentiality pledges are the same–nor should the be. No one–not even a journalist–should be bound to a confidentiality pledge made to someone who is planning to murder someone, for instance. The question, obscured by many (including Bill Keller at the *New York Times*) is whether *in this instance* a confidentiality pledge applies. Inalienable rights have exceptions, one would think that professional standards of journalists would have exceptions as well (the alternative is the fallacy of accident). Cohen should discuss–or should at least be aware of the fact–that some have argued convincingly (the leaking was a crime, for instance) that this case is a very obvious exception.