Monday, August 29, 2005

Jailbirds, not of a feather

While Martha Stewart is capitalizing on her recent release from federal prison by launching two new television shows, Judith Miller has fallen into the media’s black hole. How could our values be so twisted?

Jailed for 55 days – and counting – for refusing a court’s order to identify the sources she may have interviewed for a story she never wrote about a crime that may not have been committed, Ms. Miller has all but dropped out of sight. Ms. Miller as of today has been jailed longer than any other reporter who has declined a court's order to reeveal a source.

In going to jail, she is paying a dear price for her commitment to safeguarding the identity of her confidential sources, a valuable tool that helps the press report on otherwise-inaccessible matters of compelling public interest. In every state but Wyoming, the law in most circumstances shields reporters from being compelled by courts to identify their sources. Ms. Miller is involved in a federal case, where no such protection exists.

If you require further persuasion as to the merits of a federal shield law and the inappropriateness of Ms. Miller's prosecution, perhaps Bob Dole, the old GOP warhorse, can convince you. In a newly published op-ed, he calls the case "baffling."

Based on the meager available accounts of her confinement, Ms. Miller, who slept on the floor in the early days of her imprisonment, has limited access to the outside world, save for whatever "reality" show happens to be on the communal television in her cellblock. Attired in a denim jumpsuit marked “PRISONER,” she can’t connect to the Internet (not such a bad thing, perhaps) and seldom has been allowed outdoors. Outbound mail, phone calls and visitors are limited, too.

Meantime, Martha Stewart, who was convicted of lying about her involvement in insider trading of a biotech stock called Imclone, held a press conference last week to plug her upcoming TV shows. She even playfully bared a bit of ankle to show off the soon-to-be-removed transmitter the feds have used to monitor her movements during her parole.

In an upcoming episode of one of Martha's TV shows, the audience will be composed of 150 women who have knitted ponchos similar to the one Martha wore when she boarded the private jet that whisked her from federal prison to home detention at one or another of her elegant estates. (The poncho was a parting gift from a fellow inmate.) More than 1 million copies of the poncho pattern have been downloaded over the Internet, according to the yarn company that seized on the phenomenon in pursuit of its 7½ minutes of fame.

So, Martha gets to fatten her $895 million stake in her eponymous company, while Judith Miller chills in the jug.

Ms. Miller almost certainly will write a book about her experience and, ankle bracelet or not, will gain a moment or two of media exposure before she presumably returns to her comparatively impecunious position as a correspondent for the New York Times.

But Ms. Miller, whose only crime was defending her principles, will never make the fortune Martha has amassed by blanching haricots and chiseling on her Imclone stock. With any luck, though, maybe Ms. Miller can learn to make a poncho.