Wednesday, January 07, 2004

On the wrong track: In the latest development of the Valerie Plame investigation, the White House is mulling over whether it should force its aides to sign forms releasing news reporters from confidentiality agreements. Investigators hope that such waivers will convince Robert Novak to identify which of his anonymous sources revealed that Ms. Plame was a CIA operative.

As a journalist, let me just say that anybody who thinks this is a viable solution is sorely missing the point.

The confidentiality agreement is between the journalist and his or her source. Management is not supposed to get involved.

Anonymous sources often get into confidentiality agreements for the sole purpose of bashing their employers. Sometimes the sources act as whistle blowers for illegal activity, and other times they just express general disagreement. Just because the worker's employer gives the reporter permission to ignore the confidentiality agreement doesn't mean the contract is null and void.

Keeping such agreements is essential to a news reporter's credibility. If a journalist breaks the agreement, that reporter has in effect lied to the source and will never be trusted again. And that's suicide for a journalist's career.

That's why Bob Woodward is keeping his promise not to identify Deep Throat. Mr. Woodward is still a reporter who relies (almost exclusively, it seems) on anonymous sources. Hiding Deep Throat's identity proves that he can be trusted for a lifetime.

So go ahead and let the staffers sign any form they want. It shouldn't make one bit of difference as to whether a reporter opts out of a confidentiality agreement.

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