Journalist honors her word by going to jail

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 7, 2005

Wednesday afternoon the federal government imprisoned a seemingly harmless woman on a seemingly harmless charge. Ironically, New York Times Reporter Judith Miller was being housed within the same federal prison as convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

Miller was imprisoned for exercising her First Amendment rights while Moussaoui was charged with plotting to kill American citizens.

Moussaoui was motivated by evil, Miller by seeking the truth for her readers.

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A federal judge jailed Miller Wednesday for contempt of court after she refused to reveal a confidential source to a grand jury investigating the leak of an undercover CIA agent's name. The whole case - from the leak to the investigation of how the leak occurred - reeks of politics.

On the surface, the situation seems cut and dry: Miller refused a court order so she went to jail, plain and simple.

But the subject of confidential sources is never as clear-cut or simple.

Miller is being jailed because a federal judge wants to set an example for other journalists. For decades, journalists have used confidential sources, sparingly. Journalists generally do not like having to use such sources, but do only when no other option exists.

Unfortunately, most of the time that means the story is highly inflammatory and journalists must determine if the importance of the story outweighs the desire to always be upfront with the readers. Doing so is the ultimate in trust by all parties involved - the journalist, the source and the reader.

Confidential sources led to the discovery of the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the downfall of the presidency and the uncovering of criminal activity.

Were Washington Post reporters correct in using confidential sources to uncover this and help shed light on the President Nixon's involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate break-ins? We think so.

In a world in which the reading public increasingly doubts the integrity of reporters and distrusts news organizations, Miller stands in deference - a reporter who is willing to go to prison rather than compromise her principles.

Miller understands that her sacrifice is well worth it if doing so helps preserve the free press in America.

She may seem relatively harmless, but she's willing to be imprisoned for keeping her word and that's a pretty powerful act.