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Today's Big Story

Making Breaking News

A reporter finds himself suddenly a part of one the year's top stories.

By Richard Warnica 31 Jan 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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The big news down south this week is the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff. Libby stepped down late last year after he was charged with lying to a grand jury. (For the full background of the story, click here.)

The trial has been, to say the least, odd. Through its first week it has played out like a mix between a democrat's wet dream and an early Bush years clip show. But nothing about the trial so far has been weirder than this.

On Monday morning, John Dickerson was covering the story for Slate, where he is chief political correspondent. By Monday afternoon, a blown-up picture of his face was being splayed across the courtroom, and the former Time reporter was wondering if he would have to launch himself into the trial.

Dickerson's sudden, and we can assume unwelcome, entry into the story occurred during testimony by former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleisher. According to Fleisher, he told Dickerson back in 2003 that Valerie Plame was in the CIA.

Only one problem: it didn't happen. At least not according to Dickerson. "My recollection is that during a presidential trip to Africa in July 2003, Ari and another senior administration official had given me only hints," Dickerson wrote Monday. "They told me to go inquire about who sent Wilson to Niger. As far as I can remember -- and I am pretty sure I would remember it -- neither of them ever told me that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA."

So what was he to do? Stand up? Call a lawyer? Join the other witness on the side of the court? In his story, Dickerson says all those options flashed through his brain. But in the end, he did what journalists usually do: he wrote about it.

Of course, if Dickerson does end up as a witness, it will be one of the last stories he writes about the trial, at least until it's over. Here in Canada, two reporters are in similar straights.

Chris Purdy and David Staples, both reporters for the Edmonton Journal, have both been subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial going on north of that city.

Last week, the Canadian Association of Journalists condemned the order in a press release. "This is bad for journalism and for the public at large," CAJ president Paul Schneidereit said. "Journalists are not agents of the state."

Among the CAJ's and the Journal's problems with the subpoena is that it will cause future sources to hesitate before talking to reporters, afraid their words will end up in court. But the paper's editor in chief, Alan Mayer, expressed a more practical problem in a Journal story.

"The two reporters, both National Newspaper Award winners, will not be able to cover the court proceedings because they are witnesses," Mayer said.

The fact is, when there's a big case, like Scooter Libby, or the Edmonton murder trial, good reporters spend a lot of time preparing for it. And when those reporters all of a sudden become the story, that preparation gets tossed. Which for Dickerson, or Purdy, or Staples is a lousy reward for a job well done.

Totally unrelated, interesting fact: Purdy won her National Newspaper Award in 2002 for breaking the story about Ralph Klein's drunken visit to an Edmonton homeless shelter.  [Tyee]

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