Valerie Plame and the silence of the Times

If the Times isn't going to do more reporting on Plamegate, should its public editor explain why?

Published September 27, 2005 6:01PM (EDT)

There hasn't been much news lately in the Valerie Plame case. For those hoping that Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation will bring the downfall of Karl Rove or Scooter Libby or someone else in the Bush administration, that may be just as well: Coming soon, even a major development in Plamegate would be lost amid the news of hurricanes, Supreme Court nominations, the arrest of a Bush administration official, the investigation of the Senate majority leader and murder charges that may be connected to Jack Abramoff.

But as William Jackson writes in Editor & Publisher, none of that explains the strange silence coming from the New York Times. Check that. The Times hasn't been silent about the Plame case: Again and again, its editorial page has argued that reporter Judith Miller should be released from the Virginia jail where she has been held for nearly three months. But since Doug Jehl's piece on July 28 -- the one in which Times editor Bill Keller refused to answer written questions about the case -- the Times' news sections have had relatively little of substance to say about the Plame case or what, if anything, Miller's testimony might add to the investigation. The result: Other news outlets are beating the Times when Plame stories do arise, and the nation's "paper of record" isn't recording much on what Jackson calls "the most prominent case involving the press and national security to come along in years."

"There is a huge elephant in the Times building on West 43rd Street, but editors and publisher act as if they do not see it," Jackson writes. "It is striking that important information that has appeared elsewhere, including certain details about Miller's meeting with Vice President Cheney's chief of staff -- which is now widely believed to be prosecutor Fitzgerald's main focus -- and John Bolton's visit to her in jail, [has] still not been reported in the New York Times. This permits the eminent newspaper to be scooped, not only by its leading competitors, but also by numerous online Web sites and bloggers."

The Times should report on the Plame case and Miller's involvement in it with the same vigor it would apply to anything else, Jackson says. And if it's not going to do that, he says, the Times' public editor should weigh in and explain why.

While we're waiting for that to happen, Rachel Smolkin thinks we all ought to take a few minutes to think about the effect that Time's decision to turn over Matthew Cooper's Plamegate notes may have on journalism and government. In a long piece in the American Journalism Review, Smolkin says that Time's decision to turn over Cooper's e-mail message to his editor about what was supposed to have been an off-the-record conversation with Karl Rove has served to "unsettle some reporter-source relationships and to cloud journalistic practices ranging from negotiating with sources to taking and storing interview notes." Several journalists tell Smolkin that their sources have grown hesitant in the wake of Time's decision, but Knight Ridder Washington editor Clark Hoyt says the bigger problem may come from sources who decide not to become sources at all. "You don't know what you don't know," he tells Smolkin.

As for Cooper? He says he has learned a lesson, too. "Putting the name of a source in an e-mail is not something I'm likely to do again," he says.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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