By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Isikoff on confidential sources

Veteran Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff has some provocative things to say about the relationship between journalists and their confidential sources. And they’re not the kinds of things that would likely sit well with Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who’s been in jail for 83 days because she refuses to give up her source or sources in the Valerie Plame investigation, or Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, who nearly went to jail in the same probe.

Yesterday, at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Isikoff praised Miller and Cooper for refusing to break their promises of confidentiality. Cooper cooperated with the grand jury only after announcing that his source, who turned out to be Bush political adviser Karl Rove (a story broken by – yes – Isikoff), had given him permission to do so. Time subsequently turned over Cooper’s notes to the grand jury, an action to which Cooper personally objected.

But Isikoff followed up his praise with exasperation, saying he couldn’t understand why neither the Times nor Time magazine pursued the story of who had revealed Plame’s identity even after those promises of confidentiality were made.

“Our primary obligation is not to protect our sources. Our primary obligation is to inform our readers. And I think in the Plame matter there has been a bit of blurring of that fundamental point,” Isikoff said. “Once you make a promise of confidentiality, you’ve got to keep it. But that doesn’t end the conversation. That doesn’t end the reporting. You’re still a reporter. You can’t use that conversation, because it was conducted off the record and you’re honor-bound to that. But don’t stop your reporting.”

Cooper, Isikoff said, should have kept contacting Rove, attempting to cajole him into going on the record and leaning on him with information gleaned from other sources. Instead, Isikoff asserted, “It seems like Time stopped reporting.”

The case of Miller, Isikoff added, is “a huge mystery,” since Miller never actually wrote about the Plame investigation, and both she and the Times have maintained their silence. But, in a notably harsh assessment, Isikoff said Miller’s role in the Plame matter is likely related in some way to her reporting on the run-up to the war in Iraq, “all of which turned out to be spectacularly false.” Miller had broken a series of exclusive stories about Iraq’s alleged weapons capabilities (including the matter of the aluminum tubes, which, she incorrectly reported, could only be used to manufacture nuclear weapons) and ties to terrorist organizations. After it was clear that none of this was true, Miller’s reporting became the subject of tough criticism, some of it from within the Times itself.

Missing from yesterday’s remarks, of course, was any sense of balance coming from Cooper, Miller or their defenders. Isikoff said he and Cooper engaged in “a testy exchange” during a panel discussion at American University recently. (He hastened to add that Cooper is “a really good guy and a really good journalist.”) Unfortunately, there is no record of that exchange in this account of that event published in the American Weekly, the university’s PR organ. The student newspaper, the Eagle, appears not to have covered the panel discussion at all.

Nor is Isikoff himself without some baggage. It was Isikoff who broke the story about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s relationship in early 1998. (Drudge fans take note: The “story” Drudge broke was that Isikoff had the goods but that Newsweek wasn’t ready to publish his article.) Isikoff credited his then-editor, Ann McDaniel, with pressing him to report aggressively on the motives of Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg and lawyers involved in pursuing Clinton, arguing that was just as big a story as the president’s peccadilloes. Despite his reluctance to turn on his confidential sources, Isikoff said he did just that.

Well, I’m not going to dispute Isikoff. Nor am I prepared to go back and do a comprehensive survey of Newsweek’s reporting from that year. But it strikes me as obvious that a fundamental failing of journalists in reporting on Clinton’s sleazy sex life was that they too often fed off whatever special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and his ilk handed to them without taking a more skeptical look at the $60 million political war being waged against the White House.

Earlier this year, Isikoff became embroiled in a very public controversy when a confidential source told him that U.S. investigators had confirmed incidents of Quran-flushing at Guantánamo – and then backtracked. Newsweek was blamed by opportunistic defenders of the White House for touching off deadly riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even though high-ranking military officials declined to draw such a connection. Still, the incident raised new questions about the media’s heavy reliance on confidential sources – a practice that Isikoff defended yesterday.

“It’s not the use of anonymous sources. It’s the thoroughness in checking what they have to say,” Isikoff said, a lesson that was presumably reinforced for him after the Quran story turned out not to be true. As for whether he should have outed the source who misled him, he said, “I never even considered it. There was no dishonesty – he just missed something he had read and passed it along.”

Given that U.S. investigators later verified incidents of Quran abuse at Guantánamo – including, in one case, a Quran being urinated on – Isikoff might have been justified in coming off as a bit cavalier about the subject yesterday. But when he termed “silly” new rules now in place at Newsweek and other publications to disclose more fully why a source won’t allow him- or herself to be identified, he came off as a consummate Washington insider. It may be “patently obvious” (as he put it) why sources won’t go on the record, but it isn’t to the public – which, as we all know, is increasingly turning away from the mainstream media, which they distrust as just another out-of-touch institution.

As for Isikoff’s remarks that Cooper, Miller and their news organizations should have done more to investigate the Plame matter, I think he’s right on target. Whether or not Plame’s cover was blown in order to retaliate against her husband, former ambassador and Bush critic Joseph Wilson, remains an important unanswered question. Perhaps we’ll learn more when special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald finally issues his report.

But Cooper and Miller should have done whatever they could to advance this story as long as it didn’t require breaking their promises of confidentiality. (And sorry to save this for a parenthetical toward the end, but, needless to say, no one in the media has acted more irresponsibly in this matter than syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who is the journalist who actually outed Plame and who, in Isikoff’s guesstimation, has already cut a deal with Fitzgerald.)

Perhaps Cooper and Miller have done more behind the scenes than Isikoff realizes, but were unable to develop the story. But Isikoff’s basic critique – that journalists too often place their obligations to their sources above their obligations to the public – is absolutely correct.

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  1. mike_b1

    Excellent report and commentary, Dan. Thanks for writing this.

  2. alkali

    It may be “patently obvious” (as he put it) why sources won’t go on the record, but it isn’t to the public …Agreed. Major media outlets routinely identify even the most prominent individuals with descriptions that are well-known to many readers: “U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican Congressman from Texas …” Being equally explicit about the (potential) motivations of sources seems no less reasonable.

  3. Anonymous

    “Isikoff said he and Cooper engaged in “a testy exchange” during a panel discussion at American University recently…Unfortunately, there is no record of that exchange in this account of that event published in the American Weekly, the university’s PR organ.”Umm…I found a record of that exchange – in the story you linked to – quite clearly, if obviously sanitized for a “PR organ”:For Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, however, Cooper’s case didn’t highlight the conflict between a reporter’s obligation to his sources and a corporation’s obligation to the law. Rather it revealed a more important conflict between a reporter’s obligations to his sources and his readers. Recounting his amazement at discovering that the source Cooper was protecting was Karl Rove, whom he termed “the most powerful man in the White House,” Isikoff recommended going after anonymous sources yourself when they become an important part of the story. With the White House vehemently denying Rove’s guilt, Isikoff argued, Cooper should have gone back to Rove and asked him to go on the record, aggressively questioning him based on what he’d already learned off the record. “Our ultimate obligation is not to our sources but to our readers and to the truth,” said Isikoff.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    I read the American Weekly article, obviously, and saw Isikoff’s quotes. But there’s no response from Cooper. That’s why I wrote that there was no record of the “exchange” Isikoff referred to when he mentioned it during his Shorenstein talk.

  5. Lame Man

    It may be “patently obvious” (as he put it) why sources won’t go on the record, but it isn’t to the public …I second that agreement. Plus, the descriptions of why a person won’t be quoted can be pretty funny. “Person A, who would not be identified because it isn’t wise to bite the hand that feeds you, said…”

  6. mike_b1

    Anyone else notice how much Dan and I look alike?

  7. Anonymous

    Mr. Issikoff saw this issue very differently when he was the principal recipient of the anonymous leaks from the office of Kenneth Starr during the Whitewater witch-hunt. I don’t recall him ever writing a piece about the leaks, suspected sources, or who might be receiving the leaks. But he wrote a great many stories that turned out later to be untrue.

  8. gmoke

    After the Shorenstein brown bag, I asked Isikoff if he knew the name of the CBS cameraman who’s been held by the US military in Iraq for longer than Judith Miller. He looked up and wrinkled his brow and admitted, “No, I don’t.” I said, “Thank you,” and walked away.Abdul Amir Younes Hussein has been held since 4/8/05.I have yet to hear a discussion at the Shorenstein of the escalation in deaths and violence among reporters. I wonder if anybody will bring up the recent Reuters protest in any of the upcoming brown bag lunches. If Judith Miller comes up again and Alex Jones allows me a question, I just might.

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