Former Time editor speaks out on Plame

By
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Norman Pearlstine, the former editor in chief of Time Inc. who was at the helm of the weekly news magazine during the controversy surrounding the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, spoke Tuesday at the Watson Institute for International Studies about source confidentiality in the media, including his decision to turn over his reporter’s notes in the Plame case.

Pearlstine, now a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group and a member of the Watson Institute’s board of overseers, appeared on campus as part of the Directors Lectures Series on Contemporary International Affairs.

Pearlstine’s new book, “Off the Record,” focuses on issues of confidentiality in the media and recounts his experience as Time’s editor in chief, when his magazine found itself in the middle of the Plame controversy. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald subpoenaed Time in 2004 for reporter Matthew Cooper’s notes, which Pearlstine eventually agreed to turn over. Pearlstine said he agreed to comply with the subpoena because Cooper’s source, then-White House senior adviser Karl Rove, had been interviewed by Cooper as an anonymous source, but not a confidential one. In the lecture, Pearlstine stressed the need to focus on distinctions in the vocabulary of source confidentiality.

“What this book is about is to a large degree what changed my mind. One of the things I learned along the way is that most of us in the business do not have a clear idea what the rules are – or ought to be – regarding dealing with anonymous and confidential sources,” Pearlstine said. “Part of that is by design. We’re not a business that is licensed. You don’t go to school to become a journalist.”

“We are not as straight and honest with our sources about what the rules are or ought to be,” he said, pointing out the need for journalists to communicate better with sources during interviews.

Pearlstine detailed the types of confidentiality agreements that journalists can enter into with their sources, including “on the record,” which allows journalists to use the information and attribute it directly to a source; “on background,” which allows journalists to use the information without attributing it to the source by name; “deep background” to use the information without any attribution or as background information; or “off-the-record,” in which case the reporter can’t use the information from a source.

With anonymous sources, Pearlstine said, the journalist can’t use the source’s name in the publication, but being a confidential source means that the publication must do everything possible to protect the source’s identity.

“Rove asked to go on deep background. Nonetheless, in Matt’s piece for Time.com, he attributed it to an administration official, which is background, not deep background. Secondly, Matt considered Rove a confidential source, but Rove himself thought he was anonymous,” Pearlstine said. “Matt had put Rove’s name in a couple of e-mails, which undermined the notion of confidentiality. One of the things I’ve learned along the way is that the ‘e’ in e-mail might as well stand for evidence.”

“Journalists very rarely agree, if ever, to take information off the record, because I think as a journalist, first of all our obligation is to the public. Secondly, you should be trying to get people on the record. And thirdly, there’s nothing worse than knowing something you can’t write,” Pearlstine said.

When considering his actions for the case, Pearlstine referred to two historical precedents, including that of the Pentagon papers, the New York Times’ controversial publication of leaked documents on the Vietnam War, and Watergate, which led to the resignation of President Nixon. Pearlstine said Watergate is a great example of “public service journalism.” He also considered the long history of journalists protecting their sources by serving jail time, with their publishers paying the fines.

“In the end … while I definitely believe that reporters and editors can and on occasion should engage in civil disobedience, I think it gets a whole lot more complicated for an institution when dozens of people know the identity of a source,” Pearlstine said. “Because of the e-mails, we had dozens of people at a time who had access to that information, I thought that would put our institution in a position where it would be far more difficult to resist the court than an individual could.”

Pearlstine said the Plame affair was not beneficial to journalism and that it raised a lot of questions about the integrity of journalists and furthered public distrust. He thinks there is a need for a federal shield law for journalism to protect journalists guarding confidential sources. Currently 49 states in the United States have some sort of shield law protecting journalists – the only state without protection is Wyoming – but Pearlstine said that only about 31 of these states provide a fair amount of protection. There is no protection offered in federal court.

“The public really thinks that people who are on-the-record are the people you should trust, and the people who give information anonymously should be distrusted,” Pearlstine said. “Yet, as journalists, most of us have gotten to the point that when people are talking on the record, they’re spinning us, just giving us PR.”

In terms of his outlook on journalism, Pearlstine said that for the most part, “we don’t have investigative reporting; we have reporting of investigations.”

Pearlstine said that the role of the media and journalism in public opinion has become somewhat ignored. “Think about how Britney Spears is the most searched name on the Internet,” he said. “Most people made up their mind about who they were going to vote for and then tuned out. It’s amazing how impervious we can become.”

Pearlstine also extended his talk during a question and answer session to address issues about the Internet’s role in journalism and for truth and accountability. He believes that there is a lot to be said for “citizen journalism” and that he is an advocate for the First Amendment for online bloggers, but he said he also believes that the shield law would certainly not extend to all bloggers.

“The First Amendment wasn’t written for large multimedia companies worried about third quarter earnings. It was written for the lonely pamphleteers, and the functional equivalent of that is a blogger in pajamas,” Pearlstine said.

He thinks there is a need for business models for online journalism. “Is Wikipedia more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica? I’m not sure, but it’s hell of a lot easier to get information from it, and there’s much more of it,” Pearlstine said.

One audience member questioned Pearlstine’s new appointment at the Carlyle Group, which has been connected in the past to foreign defense investments. Pearlstine responded by saying that the Carlyle Group is now a “global enterprise” that has gone beyond the sphere of Washington and that the largest areas that the company invests in are telecommunications, retail and healthcare.