I’d added some Kate Beckinsale movies to my Netflix queue a few months ago, and this one finally made it to the top of my list and into the mailbox. “Nothing But The Truth” is loosely based upon the Valerie Plame “scandal.” The focus of the story is Beckinsale’s character, reporter Rachel Armstrong (whose rough analog is New York Times reporter Judith Miller). Armstrong outs a covert CIA agent who wrote a report absolving Venezuela from involvement in an assassination attempt against the U.S. president.
(Later in the movie, it’s made clear that the covert CIA agent wasn’t the only one sent to investigate, but that she was the only one to absolve Venezuela.)
The movie is perhaps the most thought-provoking film regarding journalism since Sally Field and Paul Newman in “Absence of Malice.”
Tthe movie does hew to the standard liberal line of who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. One of the corroborating sources is the deputy chief of staff to the vice president who gets sloshed at a kid’s birthday party and the outed CIA agent is eventually killed by a “right-wing” nut. There’s enough meat to the story to have a serious discussion in any college journalism class or newspaper newsroom.
Alan Alda plays Armstrong’s attorney and makes the longest, uninterrupted soliloquy before the Supreme Court in recorded history. Alda makes the case that journalists need to be protected from having to be responsible for revealing government secrets. Helpfully, someone transcribed the speech and posted it on the “memorable quotes” page:
In 1972 in Branzburg v. Hayes this Court ruled against the right of reporters to withhold the names of their sources before a grand jury, and it gave the power to the Government to imprison those reporters who did. It was a 5-4 decision, close. In his descent [sic] in Branzburg, Justice Stewart said, 'As the years pass, power of Government becomes more and more pervasive. Those in power,' he said, 'whatever their politics, want only to perpetuate it, and the people are the victims.' Well, the years have passed, and that power is pervasive. Mrs. Armstrong could have buckled to the demands of the Government-she could've abandoned her promise of confidentiality. She could've simply gone home to her family. But to do so, would mean that no source would ever speak to her again, and no source would ever speak to her newspaper again. And then tomorrow when we lock up journalists from other newspapers we'll make those publications irrelevant as well, and thus we'll make the First Amendment irrelevant. And then how will we know if a President has covered up crimes or if an army officer has condoned torture? We as a nation will no longer be able to hold those in power accountable to those whom they have power over-and what then is the nature of Government when it has no fear of accountability? We should shutter at the thought. Imprisoning journalists-that's for other countries, that's for countries who fear their citizens, not countries that cherish and protect them. Some time ago, I began to feel the personal, human pressure on Rachel Armstrong and I told her that I was there to represent her and not her principle. And it was not until I met her that I realized that with great people there's no difference between principle and the person.
It’s a good speech, and no one would deny that Alda’s character has a point. However, this is also the point where the legal system comes into play.
As in the Valerie Plame case, the journalist has to know that they’re dealing with someone who is willing to break the law. The outing of a covert agent by someone who has sworn an oath to protect and defend the United States is against the law. The fact that the government in many cases doesn’t pursue the reporter doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.
But here’s the thought that came to me as I was listening to Alda’s speech. OK, so the government accrues power and must be held accountable. That’s well and good. However, by passing a shield law or giving journalists some sort of special protection not afforded any other citizen, the media is accruing power. We have checks on government. We have the three branches. We have the power of the ballot box to vote out those who abuse power. Against the media, the only recourse we as a people have is the legal system – and that check is what Alda’s character is asking to have removed.
The standard that when a reporter gives a source confidentiality is time-honored and by-and-large gives those reporters who go to jail to uphold that confidentiality a certain higher status in the journalism community. That’s the price a reporter has to be willing to pay.
One almost has to admire the Armstrong character’s willingness to honor her source’s promise of confidentiality. I say almost and I’ll explain why after the break. Major spoilers follow. But I encourage you to pick up this movie and watch it.
The Armstrong character’s original source isn’t some politician, White House staffer or disgruntled CIA agent. The original source, who is revealed in a flashback as Armstrong heads to federal prison for two years, is the CIA agent's 8-year-old daughter. On a school field trip with Armstrong acting as a chaperone, the CIA agent’s daughter tells Armstrong about an argument her parents had (the mom is a CIA agent, the father is a former ambassador) and how her mommy went to Venezuela on a trip for the government.
That’s all Armstrong needs to start piecing things together and start the whole sordid tale.
So, why do you almost have to admire Armstrong? By keeping silent she keeps the secret that a little comment from an 8-year-old ultimately led to her mother’s death.
On the flip side, what kind of reporter uses a child in that fashion?
There’s an old lawyer joke: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish? One’s a scum-sucking bottom-dweller and the other’s a fish. Will Armstrong’s stance be perceived by the public as a noble one if it were revealed that an 8-year-old was her source?