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Friday, February 06, 2004

Geneva Overholser is suddenly all over the news.

First, she resigned from the board of the National Press Foundation over their decision to give Brit Hume the Taishoff Award for Broadcaster of the Year.

Then today, she has an op-ed piece in the Senile Old Lady that -- gasp! -- suggests that maybe Robert Novak should come clean about his sources in l'affaire Plame, even going so far as to draw the obvious parallel to the Hanssen case:

Yes, it is in the public interest to protect journalists from being required to name their sources in the courtroom. But it is also in the public interest for journalists to speak out against ethical lapses in their craft. Far from undermining the principle of confidentiality, our acknowledgment that protecting sources can be used for ill as well as for good can bolster it, reassuring a public that often wonders who is watching the watchdog.

In this case, then, journalists should call upon Mr. Novak to acknowledge his abuse of confidentiality and reveal his sources himself — thereby keeping the control of confidentiality in journalistic hands rather than in those of the legal system. Mr. Novak has in the past shown a willingness to identify sources who turn out to be lawbreakers: three years ago he revealed that he had taken information from Robert Hanssen, the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who spied for the Soviet Union. He needed to divulge his connection to Mr. Hanssen, he wrote, "in order to be honest to my readers."

The same ethic holds true in this case. And any journalists who step out of line to call for such an accounting in the Novak-Wilson affair would be protecting both the principle of confidentiality and the practice of journalism in the public interest.


So who is Geneva Overholser? Oh, nobody much, just the former ombudsperson of the Washington Post (back when that meant something) and current professor at the U of Missouri's journalism school.

Over the last four years the one staunch ally who stood by the Bush administration was the press corps. No tough question went unignored; no important issue went unmassaged; no White House talking point went unparroted. But that extraordinary situation wasn't due to politics, it was due to expediency. Bush was popular and the storylines his people presented made journo's jobs easier, so they rolled with it.

Now the situation is different. Bush's approval ratings drops seemingly daily, and the administration's lies have piled up so high that they're threatening to topple like a stack of wrecks at a junkyard. And no reporter with an instinct for self-preservation wants to be crushed under the weight when it comes down.

The culture of journalism still has to change, but at least a way towards change actually looks to be possible. Compared to 2000, that's not just a ray of sunshine, it's a week at Cancun.

And Geneva Overholser might just represent the first break in the clouds.

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