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John Dickerson: "You Can't Have a Press That Works, or Functions, without Anonymous Sources"

Now comes Media Matters for America, bringing the following paragraph from Time of October 13, 2003, and asking why Time did not include something like the boldfaced sentence I have added to the end of the paragraph:

TIME Magazine Archive Article -- Leaking With A Vengeance: What shook up the intelligence community also roiled the capital and set in motion the now familiar chain of scapegoating and backstabbing that has poisoned the past two presidencies. Having fumbled around in the drawer for months looking for a weapon to use against Bush, the Democrats saw an opening. On top of a moody economy, a messy war, a swelling budget deficit and a deeply polarized electorate, the leak charges came as Bush's poll numbers had sunk to the lowest point in his tenure. Indeed, with the presidential election a little more than a year away, only 37% of Americans believe the country is on the right track, according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll. When word spread last week that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was launching a full criminal probe into who had leaked Plame's identity, Democrats immediately raised a public alarm: How could Justice credibly investigate so secretive an Administration, especially when the investigators are led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose former paid political consultant Karl Rove was initially accused by Wilson of being the man behind the leak? A TIME review of federal and state election records reveals that Ashcroft paid Rove's Texas firm $746,000 for direct-mail services in two gubernatorial campaigns and one Senate race from 1984 through 1994. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are "ridiculous." Says McClellan: "There is simply no truth to that suggestion." But Time reporters have good reason to believe that McClellan's denials are not accurate.

The paragraph without the boldfaced sentence at the end--the paragraph, that is, that Time actually published--is, Media Matters asserts and I agree, misleading. At least three people who worked on the Time story--Michael Duffy, Matthew Cooper, John Dickerson, and quite possibly more--knew that McClellan's statement was false. Yet the words of the paragraph Time published don't say or hint that it was false.

Now comes Media Matters once again, giving us John Dickerson's attempt to explain to Al Franken why it would have been unethical for Time to set its readers straight by adding that last, boldfaced, sentence to the paragraph.

I think Dickerson's explanation is completely unsuccessful:

Media Matters:

FRANKEN: [T]here [were] things like quoting Scott McClellan saying the White House had nothing to do with this, that kind of thing, where you guys knew that he was not telling -- that what he was saying wasn't true. And that you allowed it to stand without saying, "We know this not to be true."... [T]here are some people a little peeved....

DICKERSON: Yes, there are some people peeved about that.... [T]he reason you can't just come out and say, "They're big liars, they're big liars," is because you end up giving up a source....

FRANKEN: Do you really give up the source, or do you just go, "They're big liars, they're big liars, but we won't say who"--

DICKERSON: Well, you can't do that, because you can't, for one of two reasons. One, you've got to show your proof, you can't just say "They're big liars, and we know something you don't, and that's--but we're not going to say any more." And if you say we do know they're liars, when they're talking about whether Karl Rove was involved or not, the only way--

FRANKEN: Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, why can't you say, "They're big liars, they're big liars," and not show your proof? Because you don't show your proof all the time.

DICKERSON: Well, but you can't, you can't say, in that instance, it's--if you say, "We're certain we know," there's only one way you could be, or in this case, when you're talking about Karl Rove, there are only ways, you know there's, if you know, you know it's Karl. I mean, you can't--

FRANKEN: Well, you're in an odd position, because you guys are--

DICKERSON: You are in an odd position, I guess, but the larger point is this: You have a source, and you make an agreement with that source not to blow their identity. That, you have to keep that agreement. And the reason you do that, even in a situation where some people may, for all those people who may hate Karl Rove and this White House and want them to be outed, you've got to remember that the same protections are the ones that protected the people who came forth about the NSA wiretapping. And people come forward about things all the time knowing their cover isn't going to get blown. Sometimes it's in an instance that people would like, because it uncovers an NSA wiretapping scheme that they don't think is appropriate, and in some cases it protects people that they hate and would like to see run out on a rail. But you can't pick and chose....

FRANKEN: Can't you just, like, hint--

DICKERSON: You can't have a, you can't have a, you can't have a situation, you can't have a press that works, or that functions, without anonymous sources.

FRANKEN: I understand.

DICKERSON: I mean, maybe in a perfect world, we'd like no anonymous sources ever--

FRANKEN: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

DICKERSON: --and it's all, but you can't, if one person decides, well, I'm going to break this because in this instance it's compelled, now, of course, I mean, if it's a murder, or some other--situation, perhaps you have a situation where you're saving lives by breaking a confidence, that's another matter. But in this, but in, in order for the system to stay whole, you have to keep your promises.

Dickerson says that the system will break down if reporters don't keep their promises to confidential sources, and that those promises prohibit them from hinting that McClellan's false statements are in fact false. But it's not that easy. The system also breaks down when readers think reporters are misleading them.

In fact, I think the system has already broken down.

Can I ever read another article by Dickerson without a voice whispering in the back of my brain: "Is Dickerson's dance with his sources leading him to mislead me?"?

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