Reporter Judith Miller deserves to go to jail not because she has refused to divulge a confidential source to a grand jury, but because it will demonstrate to the American people that there is still some principle left in journalism today.
Over the past few years, journalism has taken a beating when so-called "journalists" have declined to honor their responsibility to their audience by taking shortcuts and fabricating stories or improperly using information taken from other news sources. Each time a new Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass comes to the forefront, it is a painful experience for journalists because the actions of a few reflect poorly on an entire industry of hard-working people. But now, with Miller serving jail time for refusing to divulge a confidential source, journalism has a chance to redeem itself.
Miller, the New York Times reporter who was taken into custody Wednesday for refusing to give up a confidential source in connection with a grand jury investigation into the outing of former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, is fighting tooth and nail almost as a poster child for the good name of journalism. It will cost her something, but privileges, like protecting sources, are earned not given.
Unnamed sources are crucial to journalists because without them, important information would probably never come to light.
Bob Woodward and Mark Felt are probably the best example of this. Without Felt to steer him in the right direction, Woodward's reports on the Watergate scandal would not have been nearly as probing, likely leaving Nixon in office long enough to complete his second term.
There is danger in using unnamed sources, the potential for being used for political aims being chief among them. But the media must be vigilant in protecting itself by only using unnamed sources when absolutely necessary and establishing each unnamed source's motives for requesting anonymity. Betraying that confidentiality would irreversibly damage a reporter's career because confidential sources of information would dry up, denying the reporter access to important information.
Therefore, there cannot be a free press if reporters can be coerced into divulging confidential sources because they will not be free to continue on as they had before breaking their agreement to secrecy. Miller's willingness to go to jail rather than divulge her source demonstrates that she stands by both her ethics and the information she puts in her stories.
By requiring reporters to testify or face jail time it ensures that reporters are in fact doing their job when using confidential sources. Only the honest reporters would stand up to protect their sources, while weaker reporters who might be more likely to fabricate sources or quotes, would likely cave in under threat of jail time.
I would much rather see someone get away with the crime of outing a covert CIA operative than watch the slow erosion of journalism as a check on the government.
-- Elias C. Arnold, Roundup intern