Protect Sources or Not? - More Complex than It SeemsShould the media and the legal system protect unethical powerholders who illegally leak information as part of their power manipulations? If they are protected, doesn't that degrade democracy? If they are exposed, wouldn't that make ethical whistleblowers less likely to leak vital information to the public, also degrading democracy? The answers to these questions play out differently in a polarized adversarial political environment and in a culture of dialogue and deliberation.
I've read a number of articles recently from responsible journalists who question the journalistic justification for reporters protecting confidential sources in the Valerie Plame case. (Notable among those articles are "Karl Rove and the access of evil: Tell us your 'source,' Judy" by Greg Palast and "Why this journalist thinks that Judy Miller should go to jail" by Will Bunch.) Among other excellent points, they argue that the "protection of sources" ethical principle is intended to protect those who challenge entrenched powerholders, not to protect powerholders from being answerable to the public.
This is one of those times when I tend to agree with the logic of the argument, but fear that nuanced arguments have little bearing in a charged political environment where people see and frame things in stark terms. There is a common sensibility that moral principles and rules apply to everyone, regardless. Changing the standards for a particular person or type of person or for special circumstances can be considered a "slippery slope" -- especially in polarized environments where any slight shift or nuance on one side is instantly attacked by the other, setting up feedback loops that speed our descent down the slippery slope.
In those circumstances, failure to protect powerholder sources could very well create a climate where whistleblowers, too, will be to afraid to come forward, fearing they, too, will not be protected. In this dynamic, unethical powerholders win, either way.
So in the midst of my mixed feelings about all this, I return again to the need for a culture of dialogue and deliberation, an institutionalization of -- and widespread respect for -- thoughtful consideration of all views. It is not so much the specifics that are destroying democracy. It is the deeply adversarial spirit that undermines any sustained effort on behalf of the common good. I sense that it is THAT that most needs to change.
In a culture of dialogue and deliberation, systems of answerability (like investigative reporting) would serve to create a level playing field that supports ethical powerholders and ethical whistleblowers alike. A culture of dialogue and deliberation -- in which diverse sides of issues are well heard -- would replace attack/defense/cover-up dynamics with shared exploration, shared responsibility, and shared learning.
posted by Tom Atlee on Saturday July 16 2005
updated on Saturday September 24 2005
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