Ethics Quote Of The Week: Michael Kinsley

“As the news media struggles to expose government secrets and the government struggles to keep them secret, there is no invisible hand to assure that the right balance is struck. So what do we do about leaks of government information? Lock up the perpetrators or give them the Pulitzer Prize? (The Pulitzer people chose the second option.) This is not a straightforward or easy question. But I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorizes newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find. This isn’t Easter and these are not eggs.”

—-Pundit and former editor of Slate Michael Kinsley, reviewing the book by Edward Snowden co-conspirator Glenn Greenwald’s book, “No Place to Hide.”

This is the heroic image the press has of itself, as it protects useful criminals and traitors. Unfortunately, it's a self-serving fantasy.

This is the heroic image the press has of itself, as it protects useful criminals and traitors. Unfortunately, it’s a self-serving fantasy.

I lost much of my respect for Kinsley (full disclosure: we’re college classmates; he’s a celebrity journalist, I’m not) when he was shouting liberal talking points at Robert Novak every week on “Crossfire.” I knew Mike was more nuanced than that, and later he admitted as much in various essays: it was all for show. He later admitted that he sometimes endorsed books without reading them completely, and began writing these odd op-eds that appeared to mock the very position he seemed to be taking. Kinsley is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease*, and perhaps that’s a factor in his self-conscious sense of remove from his own writings, but the impression he has given for decades now is of a detached intellectual who looks down his nose at the very profession that feeds him, and who finds it amusing that the rubes still hang on his words, when he doesn’t give them much thought himself.

This quote from his review of Greenwald’s book (hmmm…did Kinsley actually read this one?) fits the bill. It is sloppy, but sufficiently specific to be unethical. He is essentially suggesting censorship of the press, which is an irresponsible position. The publishing of leaks should not be infringed. Chasing them down, however, is another matter. Current laws, if Democrats would leave them alone, are currently sufficient to discourage criminal acquisition of national security documents: just throw journalists who won’t reveal their criminal—that’s what they are you know, like Snowden—sources in jail until they crack, rot, or both, for obstructing justice When journalists actively aid and abet the theft of documents and data, like Greenwald did, before they are acquired and published, prosecute them too, along with their souces. Publishing such documents or using them for investigations are legitimate and First Amendment-protected activities, but nothing in the Constitution protects the leakers, traitors and thieves, or journalists who conspire to help them break the law—which is the stealing, not the publishing.

I have called what the press does with stolen material “information laundering.” That function, unfortunately, is too important to the role of the press in our democracy to regulate or constrain it, no matter how often it is abused. Still,  this should not make those who aren’t journalists immune from prosecution, or journalists who cross the line that divides reporting the news from making it.

* This is a correction; the original post said MS. I apologize for the error; I shouldn’t have relied on memory.

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Sources: New York Times

Cartoon: Doyle, Baylor

The Ethics Irony of the Justice Department’s First Amendment Chill

040308-N-0000P-002The AP’s president and chief executive Gary Pruitt told the National Press Club this week that the US government’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records has had a “chilling effect” on news gathering by the agency and other news organizations “Some longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking with us,” he said in his speech. .”In some cases, government employees we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone. Others are reluctant to meet in person.” He added that this  chilling effect on newsgathering is not just limited to the Associated Press.

My reaction? Bad…and also good. The unprecedented incursions on the news media by the AP operation and the search warrant executed on Fox reporter James Rosen are, I think, pretty obviously, government action that has the effect, and maybe the intent, of intimidating and muzzling the press, and in the case of Rosen, “criminalizing the act of journalism.” This is all ominous for the country, democracy, freedom and the public, and seriously so.

The fact that these efforts have also discouraged leakers and others who breach laws, regulations, promises and professional ethics to satisfy their personal agendas, however, is nothing to mourn. I have long termed the process whereby an untrustworthy employee illegally or unethically leaks information to the press, which then publishes it with impunity, as information laundering. I don’t think such sources ought to have their identity protected—this is an accommodation for reporters that has nothing to do with ethics at all, just pragmatics. Sources should be on the record, not anonymous, and when they reveal information they had promised not to, they should be willing to accept responsibility, accountability, and penalties. Continue reading