Liveblogging the Pursuit of Justice: FishbowlNY attends a panel (at Michael’s no less)

Wolff vs. Pearlstine vs. Lehmann vs. Cohen...

[UPDATED] Our intrepid EIC Elizabeth Spiers had her Cobb Salad waiting for her this morning at Court TV’s “In Pursuit of Justice” panel, hosted by Henry Schlieff, the president of Court TV. Watch this space becauase she is sending her notes in via Blackberry and we’re posting as fast as we can! Fishbowl lives to serve, ladies and gents. Take it away, Elizabeth!

[Spiers: There was no Cobb salad for breakfast. Surprisingly. These were actually notes dashed off on my blackberry, so I’ve cleaned them up below, with additional context in italics. Also: This is by no means a full transcript.]

Panelists:
Norman Pearlstine and Floyd Abrahms, who reps Judy Miller
Schlieff: “I hope one of them will take the time to explain to me how
the Plame Game actually works…Also joining us is Norman Lehmann…” (I think he meant Nicholas Lehmann), Richard Cohen, Paul Holmes, Michael Goodwin and “outspoken media columnist Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair.”
Court TV’s Catherine Crier is moderating.

Catherine Crier: When is a source not a source?
Michael Wolff: When the source is the story. (Wolff goes on to argue that Karl Rove’s position in the administration and the implications of Rove leaking make it a matter of journalistic obligation.)
Nic Lehmann: I think I hear you saying that if a journalist knows something, he must publish it immediately…
Wolff: (Clarifies, saying that if a journalist knows the administration is doing something illegal…)
Floyd Abrahms: I think journalists should keep their word.
Wolff: Reporters should keep their word–to their readers… You’ve just let the reporter swallow the biggest story of the age! If the guy closest to the president has potentially committed a felony…

Pearlstine: (Says the case is a reflection of how Washington works in terms of sources.) The default [in Washington] is that every conversation that is “for background”, the sources believe that they’re getting [a] confidential source relationship…a 90 second conversation with the president’s spin doctor probably didn’t deserve confidential status.
Cohen: This is not, despite what Michael (Wolff) said, a major story. This is a crappy little crime… You give your word and you stick by your word. Let’s not raise this to the level of national security…
Wolff: Let’s focus on what the big deal is. It became a big story when Karl Rove said, it’s not true. He lied. (And then the Bush administration said they’d fire anyone involved with the leak.) If Karl Rove were out of business in the administration, that’s a fucking big story!

Paul Holmes: I think this is an extremely bad case to discuss [source confidentiality]… In my view, it’s not for the source to grant [confidentiality]; it’s for the publication. [If the confidentiality is not supportable], you don’t publish. In this case, it’s not really publishable material.
Lehmann: … [But] in Washington, these sort of conversations are so common. You’re not going to say, “hold on, let me call my boss.”
(Some discussion of bargaining with sources and offering anonymity to get access)
Holmes: You make a bargain with your sources, obviously, but it’s not for you to decide, it’s for your newspaper.
Abrams: (points out that Cooper and Miller didn’t publish leaked info.) One didn’t publish at all, another published something critical of the leakers…

Pearlstine: The 1st Amendment doesn’t protect reporters’ right to keep sources confidential. There are exceptions when things are in violation of law…I made the decision that the involvement of a grand jury and national security [considerations] and of a source who did not fit the traditional definition of a whistleblower [constituted exceptions]. (Pearlstine also points to the existence of a physical file with the source’s name on it, and says if that file were available to only himself or a small number of people, it would be a very different situation, but institutional access to Cooper’s notes changed things.)

Richard Cohen to Norm Pearlstine: Did you ever consider taking possession of Matt Cooper’s] notes? (Cohen mentions that during the Spiro agnew case, Katherine Graham took his notes and said, if you want them, come after me…)
Michael Wolff: So Richard Parsons would have to take the notes!
(Pearlstine insists that it was a matter of editorial independence.)
Wolff: the problem with this case is that at the end of the day, no one looks like a straight shooter. (To Pearlstine): You could not have made any other decision!
Nick Lehmann: What’s the difference between Time Warner and the Times co?
Wolff: the Times board doesn’t have a decision to make. (On Time Warner) a public company of that size can’t say no! The shareholder lawsuits… the *feeble* share price (audience snickers) would have been cut in half overnight.
Pearlstine: the reality is that I came to a decision for journalistic principles and never got to that point.
Wolff : (elaborates on how the issue looks…) At the end of the day I think people look at this and say, ‘a pox on all their houses…”
(Another panelist doesn’t see the complication, says it’s an issue of a journalist protecting a source.)
Wolff: the complication is that it’s JUDY MILLER!

Lehmann: Rove has been continually under investigation for 30 years. (Points out that rumors were circulating in Washington that the leaker was Rove anyway, and everyone more or less knew, and perceptions about that may have distorted perceptions about the immunity of the various players.)
….

(Wolff argues again that an administrative leak is a big enough story to warrant rendering confidentiality considerations moot. Another panelist accuses him of taking a political stance. “If Karl Rove leaked that the administration knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, [would you say the same thing]?” Crier cuts the panel short.