Iraq Deaths Estimator

Live Blog


James S. Henry and Andrew Hellman
| Main |
The G-8's Incredible Deal
James S. Henry

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Media Conglomerate's Fateful Decision to Undermine Investigative Journalism
James S. Henry

Timemag500revisedIt was disappointing, but not really surprising,  that Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s Editor-in-Chief since 1995, decided last week to comply with a federal subpoena and turn over documents to the federal government that will probably burn one of his own leading journalist's sources.

As discussed below, this spineless decision was a cardinal sin against investigative journalism and the First Amendment. 

But it was entirely in keeping with Time Warner's long-standing passivity and obsequiousness toward the powers-that-be. 

It also reflects this media conglomerate's increasingly entangled interests with governments and corporations around the world.  Thank goodness that Matt Cooper wasn't working for Time's China subsidiary!

Documentos_pressfreedomonOur condolences go out to the dwindling crop of serious investigative journalists at Time, People, Sports Illustrated, and TWX's other 130 publications, as well as CNN and HBO. 

There is, however, one ray of light in Pearlstine's otherwise cowardly, inexcusable decision. We may finally get to learn the identity of the White House felon who leaked Valerie Plame's CIA relationship to the press. Already there's been some very interesting speculation....!


For the past year,  some marketing genius at AOL Time Warner -- now just Time Warner Inc. ("Twinkie," as journos know it, or TWX, as it is known to its hapless stockholders) -- has been sending us free copies of its "weekly news magazine," Time Magazine.

Even though Twinkie's stock price has been dropping more or less continuously since 1999, I am delighted that it can still afford this kind of largess. It is, after all, "the world's largest media company."

Personally, I've always enjoyed the covers and that pretentious "Person of the Year" award -- which really should still be called "Man of the Year," since they've only honored 2 women, Queen Elizabeth and Corazon Aquino, (plus 1 black and 4 Asians) since 1927. (Peter Ueberroth and Jeff Bezos, but not Nelson Mandela? FDR three times, and Truman, Ike, LBJ, Nixon, Bill Clinton, Dubya, Stalin, Deng Xiaoping, Gorbachev, and Churchill twice each? Does anyone there enjoy sucking up to power, or what?

And who WILL it be this year? The deceased Pope? The new Pope? Justice O'Connor? Bono? Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?)

Anyway, apart from all that, I almost never actually read the damn thing -- at least not since 1973, when Skip (Henry Louis) Gates and I shared an apartment in London, and he was interning for Time. It seemed like a comradely thing to do for a brother.


Bez0004In general, Time Magazine, and TWINK's myriad other publications -- People, Sports Illustrated, Yachting, Wedding & Home, Popular Science, Marie Claire, Ski, Family Circle, and over 130 others -- may be helpful and even informative for people who have regular day jobs.

But they have simply never been noted for cutting-edge investigative journalism. 

On the rare occasions when they try to do it, as in CNN/Time's infamous Tailwind investigation in 1998, they usually get caught in their own knickers.

To borrow from a few leading Time Inc. titles, they're really more comfortable keeping things Real Simple, providing Entertainment Weekly, and making a lot of Money, or perhaps even a Fortune -- unless you are a hapless TWX investor.

MurrowedwarOf course TWINK's other media properties -- especially CNN and HBO -- have contributed some valuable reporting over the years. But "Chicken Noodle Network,"  in particular,  has been under increasing pressure from rivals like Fox to do more info-tainment and be more gung-ho.

Recently they've also had big fish to fry with the Pentagon, given the increasing importance of embedded journalism and satellite feeds in all sorts of new Third World war zones.

None of this has been especially encouraging to crusading Edward R. Murrow-style  journalism.


In this case, the Time Magazine journalist whose sources were burned, Matthew Cooper, has been fighting this subpoena through the courts for 18 months. He and New York Times' reporter Judith Miller had both refused to reveal their sources to a federal grand jury that is investigating the Valerie Plame case, and had appealed their subpoenaes all the way to the US Supreme Court. After the court ruled against them in late June,  Pearlstine reached his own verdict.

Ph2005062701619_1Pearlstine denied that he was influenced at all by the risk that TWX might be subjected to a $1,000 per day fine, much less the even more costly possibility that defiance of the subpoena might jeopardize last year's settlement with the US Department of Justice. Under that settlement, the DOJ filed a criminal complaint against AOL TW for certain misconduct under securities laws, but agreed not to prosecute, so long as the company cooperated fully with the terms of the settlement.

Instead, Pearlstine simply asserted that since the US Supreme Court has decided the matter, he has no option but to comply with the subpoena.

To their credit, The New York Times, Judith Miller, and Matt Cooper, as well as -- we hope -- most other journalists and publishers -- all see it differently.

  • They understand that investigative journalists simply cannot do their jobs -- and by extension, the First Amendment can't be effective --  if they are not able and willing to protect their sources.
  • They understand that source confidentiality is a long-standing common law tradition which has already been recognized in statutes enacted by 45 states.
  • They understand that the so-called trade-off between grand jury access to confidential sources and journalists' rights is no trade-off at all -- since without confidential sources, none of the information sought would even exist in the first place.
  • They understand that in individual cases, journalists who have agreed to protect their sources may have a moral obligation that may  indeed, depending on the facts of the case, transcend the legal duty to help prosecute a specific crime. 

In short, Pearlstine's short-sighted stance, if emulated by other news-gathering organizations, could pose a real challenge to hard-hitting investigative journalism -- at least to any that is still being done inside media conglomerates like TWX, Disney, and Viacom.

Ccc_logo_blu5This is just one more example of the kind of pusillanimous behavior that we have come to associate with publicly-owned media giants.

They have so many interests at stake in their dealings with the government and their fellow corporate giants that they simply lack the will to do vigorous investigative reporting.

The good news is that while these corporate giants atrophy, a whole new generation of spunky alternative sources for news and investigative reporting are springing up.

Unlike some media conglomerates, we protect our sources -- and there are no corporate hirelings who might "balance the interests at stake" and say otherwise.   

01courageWe do feel sorry for all the many good reporters at organizations like Time, CNN, and HBO, as well as for any writers affiliated with Little, Brown or TWX's other publishing ventures.

Like Matt Cooper, they may be willing to keep promises to their sources themselves.

But how can they ever be sure now, if push comes to shove, that the commitments they've made to their sources will be respected by the myriad of senior editors and other corporate executives above them?


Meanwhile, speculation continues to build about who the White House source or sources might be who leaked Valerie Plame's status as a CIA operative to the press last year -- reportedly out of pique at her husband's anti-Bush stance. The latest rumor on the street is that it is Karl Rove

Timerove_largeIf true, some might say -- well, source confidentiality be damned! What could be more satisfying that to see this bloated blow-hard take a few laps in the federal pen for perjuring himself before a grand jury?

After all, should  a confidential sources rule that is primarily intended to protect whistle-blowers really be extended to a government leaker who's gone on the offense, trying to punish political enemies while hiding behind confidentiality? Some in the journalism community have indeed argued not.

However, from our standpoint, one person's "offensive leaker" is another's "whistleblower" -- that's not an easy line to draw.

Far better that we protect the right of journalists to honor their commitments to confidential sources of all kinds -- except perhaps in the "hard cases" where human lives are clearly at risk. Unless Dubya is a threat to Karl, presumably that's not the situation here.

(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2005

July 2, 2005 at 12:40 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference

A Media Conglomerate's Fateful Decision to Undermine Investigative Journalism
James S. Henry


Jim, An excellent piece which I have sent along to my daughter who has just graduated from Columbia journalism. I hope the lessons taught along with your analysis helps her along the path of investigative journalism. Thanks, Bill

Posted by: william dalsimer at Jul 3, 2005 12:41:15 PM

You are too categorical in your denunciation of "Time". You might have had a point if you'd focussed on the rightness of the Court's decision but, once that verdict was handed down, the reporters, no less than "Time" should have obeyed the law. The reporter's duty to protect his/her sources does not translate into an absolute right. As a matter of personal choice, maybe, but under the law it is hedged by caveats about where the balance of harm and good lies. It is a fine balance. The US Courts are very sparing with their power to compel disclosure and deserve respect. You cannot believe that private citizens and corporations have the right (for all that you dress it up as duty or obligation) to choose which laws to obey. Do they have the right to shield a felon as a point of principle? In any case, the situation is not without its ironies, as you hinted. That Judith Miller, the Administration's catspaw, should be held up as a paragon of integrity is irony enough; that she (and Cooper) should be protecting an unprincipled fixer, prepared to put Ms Plame's life at risk to make a political point, is even richer. Save your tears, Jim. There has to be a better cause for unholding principle.

Joe Roeber

Posted by: Joe Roeber at Jul 4, 2005 7:32:34 AM