One journalistic value oft cited is that a journalist’s role should be ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. Another principle or ethic is that a journalist must respect a pledge of confidentiality to sources. This promise must be kept even if, as in the current case of Judith Miller of the New York Times, it means going to jail.
The other journalist who was headed to jail until the last minute in the Rove affair, Matt Cooper of Time Magazine, said he received a waiver from his source – Karl Rove (although there is some doubt about that) and was therefore spared some time in the big house. However, what all this reveals is that in this case the keeping of the promise of confidentiality means Cooper and Miller are protecting high level sources; in other words comforting the comfortable.
My view is that there are generally exceptions to principles and that includes the protection of confidential sources. What matters are the particular circumstances: that is who is being protected for what reason. Keeping Karl Rove’s name a secret so he can go his merry way of trashing reputations unfairly for partisan political purposes and all the while sell a few magazines or newspapers does not appear to me to be particularly justifiable as journalism.
It is clear that a great deal of the actual practice of protecting sources has the real effect of permitting the Roves of the world to manipulate the media as if it were a public relations arm of the White House.