Thursday, October 13, 2011

Writer's 'Style' Under Judicial Scrutiny

A word to the wise: If you are basing your book on inside information from a source you promise to protect, be ready to actually protect them. That means you don't identify them in the story and take all precautions at guarding their identity in all future dealings pertaining to the story (book deals, follow-ups, dinner conversations, etc.)

New Your Times national security writer James Risen is being questioned regarding his 2006 book "State of War" which purports to use information obtained from a confidential CIA informant to detail the efforts of the United States to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. Risen did not identify ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling as his source, but he did allegedly drop several clues, enough to lead federal authorities to conclude it was Sterling. Now Sterling is in a federal courtroom in Arlington, Virginia, and Risen is at the center of the case against him.

Sure, journalists have the right to protect their sources, but that doesn't stop the government from putting him in the hot seat and taking him to task on every other detail of the his process in writing the book. Connect enough dots and eventually you'll see the picture, even if it isn't completely revealed.

Journalists often rely on confidential sources. These sources risk their life, liberty careers and more in order to provide crucial information they feel needs to be publicly known. If journalists cannot guarantee they will protect those sources, go to whatever lengths necessary to keep their identity secret, those sources will simply dry up.

Integrity. If you're a writer, especially a journalist, you need to understand it and employ it with every word you write.

The defense has proposed calling an American University journalism professor and former CNN reporter, Mark Feldstein, to testify that authors sometimes use writing techniques to disguise their sources, particularly through use of a third-party omniscient narrative style that describes events the author did not witness directly. Brinkema has not ruled on that motion.

Prosecutors also want Risen to vouch for the accuracy of a book proposal the government obtained from Simon & Schuster, Risen's publisher. It emerged at the hearing that the proposal includes the line: "CIA officers involved have come to the author to discuss the case."

Brinkema noted that line could cut both ways: it tends to reinforce the notion that Sterling could have been a source, but it also suggests Risen had multiple sources so Sterling would not be the only logical possibility.

Kurtzberg indicated that Risen's testimony about the book proposal is likely to disappoint prosecutors because he can't say for sure that the book proposal is precisely what he wrote.

"The thing he cannot say is this is an identical copy versus, or as opposed to, being tweaked or changed by his editors," Kurtzberg said. He said Risen didn't keep a copy of what he submitted to the publisher so has nothing to compare it to.

Click here to read more about the case.

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