Editorial recusals and special reporters

When someone in the Justice Department is involved in a crime or has close ties to a suspect, that person is recused from participating in the resulting investigation. If necessary, a special prosecutor is appointed. Parallel conventions are needed for situations in which journalists and media outlets are themselves actors in a news story. The New York Times should appoint a “special editor” to run its coverage of the Plame scandal.

The New York Times is in a tough spot in reporting on the Valerie Plame Wilson affair. The reporters and editors who ought to be reporting one of the top political stories of the year know too much and are too involved in the action. The result has been near-paralysis.

The same has been true, though not to the same extent, of all the outlets whose reporters were recipients of leaks about Plame’s identity. That accounts for the otherwise inexplicable passivity of the press in the face of what looked from the beginning like a potentially major, Administration-shaking scandal.

Of course, the press wasn’t alone in facing conflicts of interest. The Justice Department had a comparable problem. The chief suspect in the affair, Karl Rove, had been the key political adviser to the Attorney General, John Ashcroft.

But the Justice Department didn’t allow itself to be paralyzed. There existed a well-worked-out workaround for the situation in which one or more decision-makers were compromised: the recusal. Ashcroft simply took himself out of the game, and delegated what otherwise would have been his authority in the affair to his deputy, who wound up appointing Patrick Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor to run the investigation with only minimal supervision from the chain of command. So Ashcroft’s involvement with Rove, and, after he left, Gonzales’s role as White House Counsel in trying to keep the bad guys out of trouble, weren’t allowed to compromise the work of the Justice Department.

Why shouldn’t the New York Times do the same thing? Judith Miller and Bill Keller are actors in this affair, and under current American journalistic conventions therefore cannot “objectively” report or edit stories about them. Others in the newsroom almost certainly know crucial facts that were given to the paper on background and are now being publicly denied by the very sources who provided them in the first place. It needs a truly Orwellian level of dissociation to “objectively” report that X says he never said Y when in fact X did say Y to you or your colleague, but under a pledge of confidentiality.

So I propose that Keller, Miller, and perhaps others recuse themselves from the reporting and editing process on the Plame story, and that David Johnston and Douglas Jehl be appointed “special reporters” for the affair, with one of them or someone else with no direct ties to Miller or Keller as “special editor,” wielding the powers of story selection, modification, and placement that the Executive Editor and those down his chain of command ordinarily exercise.

The “special editor’s” team should then interview their recused colleagues as ordinary news sources, and report on their actions as ordinary actors, reporting on what they say and do and what is said and done about and to them just as they report on the words and deeds of the other actors in the affair. We might even expect some preferential access, covered by “background” sourcing rules “Sources close to New York Times reporter Judith Miller are known to believe that …”

Uncomfortable? Sure. But not nearly as bad as the Times’s current strangled silence on the political story of the year.

And the same applies to other compromised outlets. There’s nothing wrong with Time’s running Matt Cooper’s memoir of his own participation in the affair, but that’s autobiography — New Journalism, if you will — rather than straight reporting. Time ought to have another reporter writing, and an uninvolved editor editing, what ought to be its ongoing reporting on the scandal.

The conventions of journalism assume that the reporter and the outlet he works for are purely passive observers, not themselves actors. That’s almost always false to some extent, since it’s almost always true that the people and institutions being reported on are conscious of the potential presence of journalistic observers and are shaping their behavior to some extent in light of how it will appear in the media.

But sometimes that convention is so far from reality as to completely mislead the reader. In those cases, editorial recusal and the appointment of special editors and reporters ought to become conventional responses.

Update Andy Sabl reminds me that the Los Angeles Times did just this a few years ago in covering the scandal about its intermingling of editorial and advertising functions with respect to the Staples Center.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com