Subject: Watergate Star Says Leaks Still Vital

Date: Wed Oct 8, 2003  6:21 pm
 

OCTOBER 03, 2003
Bernstein: Novak Allowed Himself to Be Used
But Watergate Star Says Leaks Still Vital

By Joe Strupp
http://www.mediainfo.com/editorandpublisher/headlines/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1993425

NEW YORK -- When it comes to utilizing unnamed sources and digging up government secrets, legendary Watergate investigative reporter Carl Bernstein practically wrote the book on it. Actually, he and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post wrote two books about their coverage of the Watergate affair, which eventually led to the downfall of the Nixon administration and garnered the pair a Pulitzer Prize.

So what does Bernstein think of the recent disclosure of a CIA operative's identity by columnist Robert Novak? Bernstein was quick to criticize both Novak and the Bush administration staffers who leaked the information -- while also warning other journalists to make sure anonymous sources are used carefully.

"In this instance, it seems to me that Novak allowed himself to be used in a really unfair way for ideological purposes," Bernstein told E&P Online during a phone interview Thursday from his New York home. "I think Bob is an ideologue and willingly let himself be used."

But Bernstein stressed that the focus should be on the sources who leaked the information, not necessarily Novak's reporting. "The White House has no business disclosing the identity of a CIA operative in violation of the law," he said. "It seems to me appropriate to find out if somebody in the White House put ideology above the law."

In a column two months ago, Novak disclosed that Valerie Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, works for the CIA. Wilson has been a critic of President Bush's Iraq policy. Speculation abounds that Plame's identity was leaked to somehow discredit Wilson's views.

Bernstein said he would not have disclosed the name of the CIA employee if he had been in Novak's shoes, but would have, instead, sought to find out why the name was being leaked. "The real story here was always what the White House did in terms of going to Novak," he said. "If somebody from the White House called me under those circumstances, I would not print that she was a CIA operative. The story would be the conduct of the White House."

As the Justice Department goes forward with its investigation of who leaked the information to Novak, Bernstein said he was concerned that such a probe could entangle journalists and lead to efforts to reveal either confidential sources or reporters' personal notes. "No prosecutor should have access to any reporter's notes, no matter what the investigation is," he said. "I don't like it when the government investigates reporter's sources or reporters."

As someone who utilized the most famous unnamed source in American journalism, Deep Throat -- whose identity remains both a well-kept secret and the subject of ongoing speculation -- Bernstein also took the opportunity to remind the press that confidential sources are necessary in Washington, but must be used carefully.

"You can't do your work without unnamed sources," he said about covering the federal government. "There are many circumstances when there is no way to get information without them. But sometimes they are overused." Bernstein also said strict guidelines must be followed to ensure the best reporting with anonymous sources. "It puts on a reporter a special obligation to ensure that his source is not using him for grinding political axes," he said. "Occasionally you want to indicate if you think the source comes from a place with a vested interest and hint at what that place is. It seems to me Novak did that." But, Bernstein added, Novak did not "get into the motivation of why in the world they would be doing this."

Bernstein also said this incident and whatever fallout it creates should not be used to judge how well or poorly journalists are using anonymous sources or what the future of investigative reporting might be in its aftermath. "I don't think you can generalize about things like that," he said. "You can only look at the facts in this case."
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E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

Source: Editor & Publisher Online
Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is associate editor for E&P.
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