One of the questions frequently raised by critics of this web site is "how can you guys have sources the mainstream media doesn't have?"
Good question. We often quote confidential sources in our stories. We have a choice of depending on such sources or not publishing the story. If I'm satisfied the sources are accurate I go with the story.
It's a question of trust and, during my 23 years in Washington as both a journalist and a political operative, I built up a network of sources I trust and who trust me to protect their identity and not put them in harm's way. More than 40 years in journalism taught me to protect such sources at all cost.
Many of those same sources don't trust the so-called "mainstream media" outlets because they've been burned by journalists who put the story ahead of protecting those who provide them with the information.
Even worse, the mainstreamers can be downright sloppy when it comes to protecting those who have such information.
On Monday, I outlined how the Bush Administration has launched an all-out war on the press, directing attorney general Alberto Gonzales to go after reporters with subpoenas, wiretaps, monitoring of emails and surveillance to try and stop leaks about the many questionable activities of the White House.
I learned about the efforts because the FBI made the incredibly stupid mistake of sending one of their "National Security Letters" to a company I own demanding information on one of its clients - me.
Then I confirmed the story with my administration sources and ran with it on Monday, knowing that even acknowledging receipt of a National Security Letter could lead to trouble. The letter was withdrawn after my attorney negotiated a deal.
On Tuesday, an email arrived from Dan Eggen, Justice Department correspondent for The Washington Post. Dan wanted a copy of the letter and more information on the story.
That's right I write a story about how the Bush administration is monitoring the email of journalists and a journalist fires off an email asking me to violate the USA Patriot Act and risk certain jail time by providing him with a copy of a letter that I'm not even supposed to admit I have. In fact, I don't have it. I never did. The FBI sent the letter to my web hosting company offices which are 300 miles away from my home and studio. At my instructions it went from the employee who received it straight to my attorney and he dealt directly with the feds. I never saw the letter, do not know what happened to it and am not privy to details of what it said. I don't want to know. That's why I'm still sitting here and not on my way to Gitmo.
Then I checked my voice mail to find a call from Robert O'Harrow Jr., another Post reporter, wanting information on my sources. Hmmm. I write a story about how the Bush administration is monitoring phone calls of reporters and a reporter calls me on the phone to obtain information on my confidential sources. Anyone see a pattern here?
Next, I get both a phone call and an email from David Armstrong of the National Security News Service saying he is working with 60 Minutes on a story about domestic spying by the National Security Agency. He wants info on my sources.
Let's see. A reporter uses both the telephone and email to request the names of confidential sources on a story about how the National Security Agency monitors telephone and email use of, you guessed it, reporters.
Sorry guys. I'm not about to burn my sources when you take so little precaution in seeking information from me. Besides, I wouldn't help 60 Minutes if they were the only news outlet left on the face of the planet.
In 1981 I served on a panel discussion with Fred Graham, then legal correspondent for CBS News. During a break I told him about a paper I once worked for, The Alton Telegraph in Illinois, which had lost a landmark libel suit for something they never published. I thought it might make a good story about injustice.
Instead, Graham turned the story over to Morley Safer and 60 Minutes and they put together a hatchet job on the newspaper and told the story from a trial lawyer's point of view. Instead of defending freedom of the press, Safer and his crew sensationalized the story for ratings.
Some years later, we would learn again just how 60 Minutes and CBS News hangs people out to dry. Jeffrey Wigand, a fired corporate vice president for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., blew the whistle on the company's campaign to hide the true dangers of nicotine. But 60 Minutes and Mike Wallace caved to corporate pressure and shelved the story after revealing Wigand's identity. His reputation was ruined by the network's incompetence.
Given such track records, why should any source trust the mainstreamers? The Washington Post sends an unsecure email openly asking me to violate federal law by turning over a classified document and I'm supposed to believe they will protect sources that I've cultivated and protected for more than two decades?
When Mark Felt, the number two man in the FBI, served as Post reporter Bob Woodward's primary source on Watergate, he insisted that Woodward avoid contact by telephone and devised a scheme of planted messages in a newspaper left at Woodward's door and meetings in an underground garage in Arlington. Felt knew using the telephone or other standard communications means of the time would lead the secrecy-obsessed Nixon White House to his door. Felt's identity remained a secret for 31 years.
My sources know better than to use phone lines and email to contact me. We've worked out elaborate, and always changing, methods for sharing information. I'm not about to risk their confidentiality with reporters who are less careful.
I've been hauled in front of grand juries by overzealous prosecutors who wanted names of sources. They didn't get them. As a journalist, I was trained to develop my own network of sources, not call other reporters and ask them to give up theirs.
Maybe I'm too old-fashioned for today's pop-culture journalism. Maybe it's out of style for reporters to do their own legwork and research instead of depending on Google and others to do it for them.
Or maybe I'm just too old to change and too damn suspicious to get trapped by youngsters. My mama drowned the dumb ones.
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