Against blanket source immunity

The managing editor of the Washington Post has finally said something that shouldn’t have needed saying: A source who makes a confidentiality agreement with one Post reporter does not thereby immunize himself from coverage of his misdeeds by other Post reporters who discover his malfeasance independently.

The convention that gentlemen of the press do not inquire into one another’s sources has to die. Observing that convention made the entire mainstream press complicit in the successful coverup of the Plame scandal through November 2004; had that coverup instead failed, we’d almost certainly have a different President today.

Now seems like a good time to do away with a custom that meets the original, rather than the distorted sense of the Shakepearean description: “more honored in the breach than in the observance.”

Footnote The expression “honored in the breach” now usually means a rule more often broken than kept. But context makes it clear that Hamlet was saying that the custom of firing a cannon every time the king took a drink was one that it would be more honorable to break than to observe.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4, from line 5

A flourish of trumpets, and two pieces goes off.

HORATIO: What does this mean, my lord?

HAMLET: The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,

Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;

And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,

The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out

The triumph of his pledge.

HORATIO: Is it a custom?

HAMLET: Ay, marry, is’t,

But to my mind, though I am native here

And to the manner born, it is a custom

More honoured in the breach than the observance.

This heavy-headed revel east and west

Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations;

They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase

Soil our addition…

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: