March 7, 2007

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Libby Verdict Puts Media in Spotlight

WASHINGTON – The guilty verdict returned Tuesday against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff shows how anonymous news sources can become quite public.

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby faces the prospect of spending 30 years in prison for obstructing justice, lying to FBI agents and perjury. Jurors found that Libby lied when he told the FBI and a grand jury that reporters revealed the CIA officer's name to him. Instead, the prosecution showed that Libby learned the officer's name from others in the White House, including the vice president and presidential adviser Karl Rove. Libby, speaking as an anonymous source, sought to get the press to write about the officer's husband.

Reporters were star actors in this drama. The five-week trial showed the often-murky way that information passes from government officials to the press. Reporters were placed in the uncomfortable role of having to reveal publicly to whom they talked and why stories did or did not result from their conversations with government leakers.

One result of the trial is certain to be an increased reluctance to speak to the press, even on background, after the prosecutor was able to compel reporters to talk.

As this trial showed, the ground rules for talking to reporters continue to cause problems. The case is another chapter in the long-running debate over using anonymous sources. Some editors forbid reporters to use information from unnamed sources.

In a 2005 joint survey of 419 newspapers by the Associated Press and the Associated Press Managing Editors, 103 editors said they ban all use of anonymous information. Others will use material reluctantly, identifying the source by a general title or other features that add credibility, but not total clarity.

An exhibit in the Newseum's News History gallery helps explain the debate over the ground rules for using information and naming sources. The Newseum opens soon.

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