Guardian column: Secrets

In a culture of transparency, keeping secrets is easy

Jeff Jarvis
Monday October 10, 2005
The Guardian

The internet is changing the nature of secrets. Concealment has always been dangerous to a democracy and poison to journalism. But now the web explodes our view of truth like a kernel of popcorn: it has given birth to a culture of transparency, in which there is no higher virtue than openness. It is enabling anyone to expose the hidden: in other words, to do journalism. Yet it also allows citizens to say what they want without saying who they are – yes, to keep secrets.

Once, reporters were the keepers of society’s secrets: they decided which facts held by the powerful should be exposed, and they revealed these scoops on their schedules. Yet reporters also believed they stood apart from the law, vowing to defy government subpoena to maintain the confidentiality of a source.

Therein lies the knicker-knotting irony of Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail – not for revealing a secret (she never published the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame) – but for refusing to reveal the secret’s source (or, for all we know, sources). America’s community of journalists is gobsmacked by her sudden decision to accept one source’s waiver and to testify . . . in secret. Some say she deserted her principled stand. Others say she could have made the same deal months before and not dragged the Times and journalism through a briar patch, all the way to the Supreme Court. In either case, she did not immediately reveal the full story to her public – and shouldn’t that be a reporter’s gravest sin? Said Dan Froomkin of “There is nothing intrinsically noble about keeping your sources’ secrets. Your job, in fact, is to expose them.” (Disclosure: I consult for the Times’ parent company, but that certainly gives me no insight; I’m as befuddled as the next hack.)

Bloggers have been equally confused and even angrier. Liberal blog queen Arianna Huffington, who long dogged Miller for supporting the Bush administration’s story-cum-fantasy of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, wrote that “Miller went from pariah to icon, and the Times went from apologising for her work to comparing her in a series of over-the-top editorials to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.” The conservative princes at speculated – because they could do nothing but speculate – that Miller must be hiding some bigger scandal. My fellow media blogger Jay Rosen at lamented that the Times “can’t speak clearly, or it contradicts itself. Instead of giving out information, it withholds. It can never tell the full story.”

For their part, Miller and the Times say they stand on the principle of journalistic confidentiality. And they have used this drama as a platform to lobby for a national shield law to protect reporters from having to reveal sources (most states have such laws; the federal government does not).

But the elephant in the newsroom – or rather, in the herd stampeding outside – is this: how can a shield law operate in an age when anyone can perform an act of journalism? Shouldn’t a blogger receive the same protection as a reporter for the same whistle blown? But if everyone has a privilege, is it still a privilege, or does secrecy become an entitlement? If, instead, we try to define who gets the privilege, who is a journalist? Aren’t we in danger of certifying reporters – and empowering government to decertify them?

At an event about confidential sources for the City University of New York (further disclosure: I will soon teach there), Times executive editor Bill Keller acknowledged that shield laws today would likely not protect bloggers. But he favours a broad definition of the craft. The Times “should be exceedingly humble about trying to decide who and who is not a journalist since we meet the test,” he said, “and it feels like pulling up the ladder behind us … I think it should include some bloggers.” Some, but who?

Now look at this from the whistleblower’s perspective: if you want to tell your story, do you still need a reporter to publish it or can’t you just blog instead? And if neither the law nor a reporter can offer a sure shield, can’t the web? Reporters Without Borders just released advice telling bloggers in repressive regimes how to publish while staying safely anonymous.

So if Deep Throat wanted to whisper today, couldn’t he blog? If conspirators in the White House wanted to out CIA spy Plame, couldn’t they just post it on a forum? And once a secret is revealed, in any medium, it’s not a secret any more, is it?

Oh, what a tangle the web does weave.

· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at