Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who has refused to reveal her sources as to who in the White House told her that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent (turns out, an undercover agent) was jailed by a federal judge. There are some serious questions that this case raises.
One, to what extent do American journalists have the right to protect their sources? True that there are no federal laws about it, but the Constitution, in protecting the "freedom of press", must imply some degree of it. After all, you cannot have a free press if the ability of that press to uncover information is severely damaged by reporters being forced to name their sources. This has a chilling effect on what information can get out. Of course, most people would agree that it is better leaks of the Valerie Plame kind did not happen at all. But in the same breath, most people are probably thankful that information was leaked that lead to Nixon's impeachment. But under federal law, revealing that information was a crime as well. Should a journalist have been forced to name her source in that case? If not, then are we not being purely consequentialist here? If the outcome was good, protect journalistic sources. If it was bad, force them to reveal. Of course, the obvious difference is that Deep Throat revealed a criminal act within the White House, whereas this source revealed a CIA undercover agent. Big difference. Still, should journalists be forced to make moral judgments?
Two, does the public's right to know who outed Plame trump the freedom of the press to protect their sources? In most cases the answer is no. Confidential sources are protected even if the public wants to know who the source was. However, this case is about democracy itself. This is not just about the right to know something or anything. This is about an informed citizenry. When a government is corrupt, the public's right to information about that corruption must trump all confidentiality, because that is what our entire system is based upon. Outing an undercover CIA agent is treason, and it puts this country and its citizens in danger. And no White House official should ever be engaged in doing so. From that angle, the Whitewater case and this case is similar, and there is no conflict at all between journalists not having to reveal sources there, and having to reveal it here.
In the end, the New York Times is doing what it must: defending journalistic integrity. They are a newspaper. But the Supreme Court is also right: in this case, the public's right to be informed about corruption in their government trumps confidentiality of the source, and journalists must now serve a higher duty - that of a citizen.