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FRIDAY, JULY 15, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Time editor was right after Supreme Court was wrong

Time magazine editor Norm Pearlstine has been the subject of much criticism by his colleagues since he turned over reporter Matthew Cooper's notes to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

But the criticism is unwarranted because, under the specific circumstances of the case, Mr. Pearlstine did the right thing at the right time.

Mr. Pearlstine's decision to hand over Mr. Cooper's notes about a leak at the White House that was intended only to discredit an administration critic — and potentially endangered the life of an American intelligence agent — came after the magazine exhausted its legal options in protecting its First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court — imprudently — declined to hear Mr. Cooper's appeal of prosecutor Fitzgerald's demand to identify his sources. The refusal allowed to stand a precedent that threatens the foundations of a free press and the public's interest in uncovering corruption and wrongdoing.

However certain we are the court ruling was inappropriate, it is nonetheless the law of the land. And the media — like all other institutions and individuals — have an obligation to obey that law.

Mr. Pearlstine had to make the difficult choice between disobeying the law or turning over his reporter's notes — in effect, revealing the identity of the confidential source.

On the one hand, Mr. Pearlstine could have taken the road traveled by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who refused to obey a court order because he (and others) disagreed with it.

Instead, Mr. Pearlstine decided to obey the order and accept the criticism of his peers in the press.

There are some circumstances under which it is in the public's best interest to reveal a confidential source. Foreknowledge of a terrorist attack is one hypothetical example.

By turning over the notes in this case, Mr. Pearlstine revealed the identity of a confidential White House source who may have committed a crime in doing so. The leak may in fact have been a violation of the federal Intelligence Identities Protection Act, and possibly jeopardized the safety of an undercover Central Intelligence Agency employee.

With our First Amendment rights comes great responsibility. We must weigh the consequences of our actions and make a decision based on the public interest.

When one considers the circumstances of the specific case, and the extent to which Mr. Pearlstine tried to protect the First Amendment, one must conclude he made the right decision.

It is regrettable that the courts made the wrong one.

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