When I was a reporter, it was recognized that that confidential sources almost always had their own agendas-some were saints and some were scumbags. But you didn’t tell anybody who they were.

You kept their identities secret for one reason: You’d said you would do so. You had given your word. One had made this bargain because (quite simply) it is impossible to get certain kinds of information without confidential sources. Their motivations were irrelevent as long as your motivation was just getting the story–not carrying water for them.

But now James Risen, the New York Times reporter whose book and articles on what the newspapers are calling “domestic spying” (others prefer to call it the probable reason that there have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001) has triggered a new discussion of sources, is in the process of formulating a new dogma about whom one is obligated to protect.

It appears to have little to do with the archaic reason that you’ve given your word-nope, it’s whether the source has the reporter’s own personal seal of approval:

“On NBC’s ‘Today’ show this morning,” reported ABC’s the Note, “New York Times scribe Jim Risen told Katie Couric that he hopes he will not have to reveal his sources to a grand jury and declared his story to be the exact opposite of the Plame case. Risen claims his sources revealed information for the best possible reasons and he went on to declare those sources ‘patriots.'”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius intuitively hit on the emerging dogma about sources (without pausing to think it through) in his end-of-the-year column:

“The New York Times lionized Judith Miller for going to jail to protect her sources from a grand jury investigation, but when her key source turned out to be Vice President Cheney’s top aide, the cheering stopped and Miller lost her job. Top editors of the Times and The Post tried to act responsibly by discussing explosive intelligence stories with the White House before publication, and then they were vilified by the left for publishing too little and by the right for publishing anything at all.”

The new dogma seems to be that Republican sources are bad and not worth protecting, while Democratic sources, or, at least critics of the Bush administration, are noble and worthy of protection-though, significantly, Mr. Risen didn’t quite say he’d go to jail to protect his sources. They’re patriots, but I am not sure Mr. Risen wants to spend 85 days eating prison fare for his patriots.

But this is a seismic shift in how journalists operate. Powerline notes:

“There is a sense in which Risen is correct in saying that the leakers in the two cases are exact opposites: Scooter Libby is a Republican, and the anti-Bush bureaucrats who leaked classified national security information to Risen and his colleagues are, in all likelihood, Democrats. But Risen’s suggestion that his leakers, unlike Scooter Libby, are ‘patriots,’ is risible. As we’ve said before, nearly all leakers believe that their motives are pure. The Plame leakers were motivated by their admirable desire to counter lies that were being told by administration critics, especially Joe Wilson.

“One possibly legitimate distinction between the two groups is that the Plame leakers may not have known that there was anything secret about Valerie Plame’s CIA employment–prosecutor Fitzgerald apparently concluded that she was not a covert agent–while there is no doubt that the NSA leakers were well aware that they were compromising highly classified intelligence operations.

“In any event, under the governing law, the leakers’ motivations are irrelevant. They committed a crime, and should be prosecuted and jailed.”

I think that the mainstream media has walked into an ambush on this-they’re going to look bad again. The only problem is that this time they may have seriously compromised not their sources but our own safety. All of us.