Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of Time Inc. during the controversy surrounding the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, spoke at Brooklyn Law School on Sept. 26. Now a senior advisor with the Carlyle Group, Pearlstine spoke at the school’s 10th Media and Society Lecture, held in the Subotnick Center over lunch.
Pearlstine, who was trained as a lawyer, is a seasoned journalist with decades of editorial experience at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Time Inc. In 2005, he turned over a Time reporter’s notes from an interview with a source in the Bush Administration to a federal prosecutor who was investigating the leak of Plame’s identity by government officials. He subsequently weathered a storm of criticism from many who thought he had violated a journalist’s duty to protect his sources. In his new book, Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War over Anonymous Sources, Pearlstine sets the record straight, explaining his reasoning and offering advice to journalists to make sure they and their sources understand the difference between “anonymous” (the reporter will make every effort to not use the source’s name, but will not go to jail to protect it) and “confidential” (the reporter will risk jail or fines to protect the source’s name).
In his lecture, Pearlstine first recounted the course of events that led to his decision to comply with the prosecutor’s subpoena, which was issued not only for the reporter but also for Time Inc. He then explained his reasoning, citing the reporter’s misunderstanding of his source’s request for confidentiality. The reporter’s interview with the Vice President’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. did not actually involve confidential information, and presidential advisor Karl Rove had spoken to the reporter on “deep background,” which should have simply required that the story posted on Time’s Web site not attribute any information to an administration official; it was the reporter, said Pearlstine, who unilaterally insisted that Rove was a confidential source. Since Rove had never demanded confidentiality, he was really only an anonymous source. “It is critically important that journalists understand the difference between promising anonymity…and confidentiality,” he said, lamenting that they often do not make the distinction. To complicate matters, there is also no consensus on the meaning of common journalistic terms such as “off the record” and “deep background,” he added.
A federal judge’s $1,000-a-day fine against Time Inc. for civil contempt was upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals and ultimately turned down for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. While an individual can engage in civil disobedience, it is much harder for a corporation to do so, Pearlstine explained. In his book, he added that he thought it was necessary to comply with the rule of law and hypocritical of the press to ignore orders of the Supreme Court and then criticize others for not obeying the law. He was also troubled by his belief that neither of the sources he was struggling to protect, “Rove nor Libby[,] fit the classic profile of someone deserving confidential-source status,” as they had leaked Plame’s identity in an underhanded effort to undermine criticism of the Bush administration’s insistence that Iraq was holding weapons of mass destruction.
Pearlstine concluded by offering some thoughts about what journalists and lawyers can take from the controversy. “We clearly suffer from the absence of a federal shield law,” he said. “You cannot do good journalism at the highest level without the ability to use anonymous and confidential sources.” He also offered up a set of editorial guidelines, printed as an appendix in his book, designed to help journalists understand how to better lay ground rules for interviews with sources.