Big-Name Journalists Spar Over Sources at NYC Gathering

By: Jennifer Saba

This morning, Court TV gathered a group of columnists, editors, attorneys, and academics to discuss ?the rule of the law vs. the rule of journalism? at the popular media haunt Michael’s in mid-town New York.

With panelists Norman Pearlstine, Floyd Abrams, Nicholas Lemann, Richard Cohen, Michael Goodwin, Michael Wolff, Paul Holmes, and moderator Catherine Crier, the allotted hour was barely enough time to kick around complicated issues — like the unfolding of the Plame story and other related concerns about confidentially and anonymous sources.

During his opening remarks, Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO of Court TV, tried to sum up the theme of the breakfast panel as “Sophie’s Choice for the mensa group.”

With that, Court TV’s Crier threw out the first question, seized by the call-’em-as-he-sees-’em Vanity Fair Contributing Editor Michael Wolff.

Crier: “When is a source not a source?”

Wolff: “When the source is a story. That’s a softball question.”

Wolff, whose column in the September issue of Vanity Fair sharply hit the role of journalists in the Plame story, pushed his argument even further this morning over a plate of scrambled eggs and pancakes. He posited that if Time magazine had run the Matt Cooper story — i.e. Rove as the leaker and master puppeteer — a year ago, President Bush may not be in office serving a second term or we may not have had as many deaths in Iraq.

Further, Wolff called this the “biggest story of our age.”

First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, who is representing jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller in the Plame case, dismissed Wolff’s remarks as pure hyperbole. “Reporters should keep their word to their sources,” he said.

Washington Post Op-Ed columnist Richard Cohen seemed to enjoy sparring with Wolff the most: “This is not a major story. It’s a crappy little crime and it may not be a crime at all,” he said. “The issue is this: You gave your word, you stick to it.”

“Let’s focus on what the big deal is here,” Wolff responded. “It became a story when Rove lied.” Wolff maintained that because Bush pledged to fire whoever leaked the story, and the leaker could well turn out to be Rove, “that’s a fucking big story.”

Later in the panel, Time Inc. editor-in-chief Pearlstine reaffirmed his decision to hand over Cooper’s notes, adding that he would have handled the source status differently. He also said that at one point he (as well as Time Inc. attorneys) had a copy of the notes.

?At the time that we first received a subpoena from the special counsel on Matt Cooper,? Pearlstine said, ?the question was asked was this a confidential source relationship and Matt says that it absolutely was, and that’s what it comes down to.

?If I were to try to rewrite things at all, I think I would come out somewhat closer to Michael’s position and say that, if you will, a 90 second conversation with the president’s spin doctor who is trying to undermine a whistle blower probably didn’t deserve confidential source status.?

Crier asked Pearlstine whose interest does a corporation serve if shareholders are involved? Pearlstine responded that it never got to that point in the Cooper case.

Wolff jumped in saying that part of the problem with the case is that “no one seems to be a straight shooter.” The Time Inc. board, he said, would never allow Pearlstine to make any other decision than the one he made.

He also said that news organizations have failed the public by getting the Iraq story wrong all along.

Cohen said that everybody got it wrong, that reporters are not CIA agents, and that you have to rely on your sources. “I don’t fault reporters for getting it wrong,” he said.

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