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Death of a Precedent

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Message Jayne Stahl
While about the business, and solemn duty, of burying a president, Gerald Ford, we must also prepare to mourn the loss of a precedent, that of the separation between press and state. The notion of a free press, along with free speech, and freedom of assembly were guaranteed by a constitutional amendment, the First Amendment, which has been under vigorous, and continuous assault by the Bush administration .

2006 ended while we, as a nation and a world , were diminished by the medieval and senseless hanging of a man whose gravest crime was his greatest infirmity, and the early weeks of 2007 will witness an unprecedented, and obscene procession of journalists from the most highly reputed newspapers called upon to testify as to the infamous role of Scooter Libby in outing undercover CIA operative, Valerie Plame.

Consider that while we neutralize the Bill of Rights, we also set a dangerous precedent by calling nearly a dozen reporters to testify, on both sides of the aisle, and break their oaths of confidentiality. Consider, too, that the anonymity of the government officials, for and against whom they testify, may someday be a prerequisite in order to address "serious issues of public importance." (AP) So, while we're in the process of stepping on toes, note that we're stepping on some pretty big ones.

I recognize that we must respect the need for the prosecution to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the former aide to Dick Cheney perjured himself and, in order to do so, statements from those reporters to whom Libby spoke, such as Judith Miller, Matthew Cooper, and Tim Russert, might be critical in order to make their case that Libby not only failed to remember, but deliberately lied about conversations with the journalists which resulted in outing the covert CIA operative. And, conversely, we recognize that Libby's counsel has a need to parade a bevy of lawyers of its own to corroborate their client's most convenient memory lapses.

But, though it didn't look like it, Karl Rove was pulling the strings not Valmont in "Dangerous Liaisons;" too bad for Scooter that his friend Karl couldn't figure out a way to finagle a holiday pardon out of Mr. Bush, then we'd have had two presidential pardons to celebrate. Bah humbug, indeed! And, as if the compromising positions in "'Dangerous Liaisons" weren't bad enough, what happens to the concept of investigative journalism when reporters unwittingly, and unwillingly, find themselves as governmental stooges in a case that has about as much to do with national security as Mickey Mouse has to do with Donald Trump?

Moreover, at a time when cynicism about the veracity, and integrity of the news media has been at an all time high, what better way to neuter information-gathering than by corrupting the notion of an independent, and confidential source? What happens to public confidence in the tamper-free, unobstructed flow of information when questions arise, legitimately or otherwise, about whether reporters were co-opted by the government to be cheerleaders for the invasion of a sovereign state, and an increasingly unpopular war?

Who are we to trust to bring us the truth of what is happening, both home and abroad, when we witness governmental intrusion, and collaboration in the process of reporting, and journalists cooperating with a criminal investigation at the expense of their oath of confidentiality? Would "Deep Throat" talk to Bob Woodward about what he knew if he thought that Woodward would be called upon, under subpoena and against his express wishes, to divulge what he said?

While Mr. Bush, on the surface, has nothing in common with Oscar Wilde, both would agree, as Wilde said, "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it." And, in the final analysis, it doesn't matter whether these journalists testify on behalf of the defense, or the prosecution; what matters is that journalism not be compromised by the whimsy of a grand jury subpoena which, in itself, has become an agent of fear designed to stifle dissent.

Yes, Lucy Dalglish, head of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is right to call this assemblage of nearly a dozen journalists before a federal grand jury "horrifying." (AP)
There are few things left, in this life, we can take for granted. Privacy ever eludes us, but appetite for information, and the desire to know, are about as American as apple pie. Presidents come and go; we have but one Constitution.

Right around the time of the Civil War, Walt Whitman wrote: "For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come." Everyone who cares about responsive, ethical government, and fair elections must consider "results to come" when allowing this administration to capriciously, and copiously, intrude upon our inviolable, and unassailable right to a free press.

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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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