If you are a young man or woman trying to decide on a career, I urge you to consider journalism. It will automatically confer on you powers beyond your contemporaries’ imagining, and enable you to exert immediate and important influence on any public matters that concern you.
Special training in journalism is not essential. And you don’t have to land a job with the New York Times or NBC News. Just get your local newspaper to name you as its “Washington correspondent,” and rent a cheap room in that city or one of its suburbs. You’re on your way!
There will immediately descend upon you an unearned and invisible status that no one but a journalist possesses. For example, before you became a journalist, no Washington politician would dare tell you a secret with possible legal consequences on your promise not to reveal its source – not because he feared you would voluntarily reveal it, but because he knew that you, like any other average citizen, might be hauled before a grand jury in a criminal investigation, put under oath and forced to disclose that source or face a stretch in jail.
Today, however, now that you are a journalist, most of the country’s high-minded citizens believe that you should not be required to break your promise, even if only your testimony can convict someone guilty of a vicious crime. As a journalist (this argument goes) you automatically acquire the right to receive information and pledge anonymity to its source. Otherwise, how on earth could the public ever learn unpalatable truths about what is going on, in government or elsewhere? A large majority of states have “shield laws” expressly extending immunity to journalists in such cases.
It’s true that the Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg ruling, refused to extend such immunity to reporters in federal cases. So when New York Times correspondent Judith Miller was recently ordered to reveal a confidential source to a federal grand jury in a criminal investigation, she and her paper simply defied the court, and Miller was sent to jail until the grand jury’s term expires in October. But Miller is widely regarded as a hero for her defiance, and there is undoubtedly a book offer and a lot of lucrative speaking fees – perhaps even a Pulitzer Prize – waiting for her when she emerges from the pokey in October.
So, as a journalist, you will have wonderful powers of receiving anonymous information and publishing it, to the discomfort of all sorts of people. And even in the rare case where a federal court requires you to identify your source, you can refuse, serve a short jail sentences and become a certified hero, with all the perks that implies.
But that is only the beginning. You can, as a journalist, decide which anonymous sources to quote and which to assign to the wastebasket. You can quote unsourced information from members of one political party and simply ignore contrary information from members of its rival. Better yet, you can quite accurately describe one anonymous informant as “a source close to the Committee, who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified,” and discreetly fail to add that your informant is notoriously undependable, motivated by partisanship and personal hatreds, and was drunk when he talked to you.
Are you beginning to appreciate the power a journalist has under the rules by which the game is played in Washington today? He (or she) poses as the diligent exposer of devastating truths, using the “reporter’s privilege” to conceal the source of those “truths” in the high name of informing the public – but in fact the journalist serves as a transmission belt for all sorts of dubiously motivated “information” from unnamed and quite possibly thoroughly discreditable sources to millions of readers and listeners who have no possible way of evaluating it.
No wonder so many of the most thoroughly biased people who pass through America’s colleges today make journalism their chosen profession. There is no better or quicker way to serve up political propaganda, disguised as information from honorable but understandably anonymous sources. The “reporter’s privilege” is a ticket to unrestrained, and undeserved, power.