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About Utah: Game players turn journalists into pawns

Several years ago, on the day he completed sale of the franchise to Larry H. Miller, Sam Battistone, owner of the Utah Jazz when they first arrived in Utah, wanted to come clean on how he felt about journalism now that he was exiting the public scene.

"I feel sorry for the media," he said to me in a candid aside, "you never get the whole story from us; you only get what we want to tell you."

I was reminded of Battistone's confession this past week when I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to vice president Dick Cheney, was indicted on charges that he lied to a federal prosecutor and a grand jury in the investigation of leaks to the media that outed former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in the summer of 2003.

Libby told special counsel Dan Fitzgerald that he first learned about Plame's CIA connection from reporters before passing on that information — in a mostly confidential you-can-use-this-but-don't-quote-me manner — to other reporters.

But after investigating Libby's story, Fitzgerald came to the conclusion that Libby knew about Plame before he talked to any of the reporters, and it was the news-maker, not the news-gatherers, who was the conduit. He told the reporters what he wanted them to know.

In this case, it's assumed he wanted them to know of Plame's association with the CIA as a way of discrediting her husband, Joe Wilson, whose earlier CIA-sponsored fact-finding mission to Niger negated Bush administration claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had negotiated for radioactive material with the African nation.

To me, there are two huge ironies associated with this story:

One is that one of the reporters Libby talked to about Plame, Judith Miller of the New York Times, went to jail for 85 days last summer to protect Libby's identity — a person who it is now alleged was using her for his own agenda.

The other is that Fitzgerald's investigation is exposing the double-edged danger of confidential sources at the same time journalists are trying to get a national shield law passed that would give even greater protection to the Scooter Libbys of this world.

The whole mess — whether Libby is found guilty or not (and I suspect a guilty verdict, if there ends up being a trial at all, will be difficult; there's way too much he-said-she-said to move beyond reasonable doubt) — lifts a layer off the murky underworld of leaks, counterleaks and the potential of the media to become unwitting pawns in someone else's game.

No one wants to be somebody's fool, and no one especially wants to be somebody's fool when it is connected to what they wrote about last week above the fold on A1.

If you've been had, it's much better to realize it in private.

The real-life scenario currently playing out in Washington has more than a passing resemblance to the plot of the classic 1981 movie, "Absence of Malice," where the government attorney, played adroitly by Utah's Wilford Brimley, says to an overzealous public official accused of Libby-like behavior: "You can't have people go around leaking stuff for their own reasons. It ain't legal. And worse than that, by God it ain't right."

Later, the man targeted and victimized by the nefarious leaks, played by Paul Newman, says to the duped reporter, played by Sally Field, "You don't write the truth. You write what people say."

It is precisely words like this that keep journalists up nights.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.