The Rove Affair, a Non-Beltway Perspective?.It has become increasingly clear that there?s no way the press in general, and the Washington press corps in particular, can come out of this fiasco looking good. What is the average news consumer supposed to make of a case that remains so thoroughly murky even though two major news organizations are at the center of it, and presumably privy to a lot more than they?ve reported (and I don?t mean the names of their confidential sources, if any are still confidential)? What is the average ordinary (non-journalist) individual to make of pitiful displays like the July 11 gaggle, which we?re supposed to think showed a suddenly-energized White House press corps making Scott McClellan pay for his months of subterfuge and persiflage but featured such fatuous questions as: ?Scott, can I ask you this: Did Karl Rove commit a crime??

Nor is it pretty for the sheer promiscuity with which the Washington press hands out promises of confidentiality to stand exposed. If you?re a White House reporter, Karl Rove is your subject No. 2 (or perhaps even No. 1). What?s the case for offering the subject of news coverage blanket anonymity to discuss his own actions and motivations? Shouldn?t it be presumed that he will seize the opportunity to spin, insulated from the consequences, rather than to provide you with useful information (i.e., news)?

Matt Cooper wrote over the weekend that one reason he made his fateful call to Rove was to learn why the administration (i.e., Rove) was smearing Wilson. Under the cover of anonymity, Rove then proceeded to smear Wilson. What did Cooper gain from this conversation that warranted bestowing the journalist?s most precious gift, the promise of confidentiality? (He certainly didn?t get an answer to his question.) Sure, if not for ?double super secret backround? Rove would not have taken the call. With all we know now, we can ask, So what? Rove used the gift to point Cooper down a road that led, inevitably, to a lie.

Many in the press are talking as though the Cooper-Miller mess destroys their ability to recruit and exploit confidential sources, but plainly they?re not talking about confidential sources the way we think about them in the investigative journalism biz. Investigative reporters strive never to hang a story directly on quotes or commentary from confidential sources; they use the sources to guide them to privileged material such as documents, in black and white. That protects the story, and in all but the rare case, it protects the source, too.

Washington confidentiality in the modern era is all about maintaining access, even if that access yields scarcely anything worth publishing. If you have a confidential chat with Karl Rove, and he leads you down the garden path, do you end up with anything worthwhile other than DC cocktail party chatter about your last conversation with Karl Rove? And should we be appalled and surprised that Rove used the occasion to mislead? To paraphrase George Orwell, you can?t blame Rove for taking such an opportunity to further his own interests, any more than you can blame a skunk for stinking.

This episode is part and parcel of the debasement of the confidential source?s role in American journalism. Taking sources at their own level of self-interest is what has given us Whitewater, Wen Ho Lee, and Iraqi WMDs. In Washington, they?re used as social currency; when anonymous ?senior administration officials? give their briefings, their identities are known to everyone in the system except the reader. It?s another expression of the elitism that has opened a yawning gap between the practitioners of journalism and the public. Even Hollywood is onto us now; this sign of the zeitgeist is only the beginning.

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