By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/12/2004 7:00:00 PM
The federal government is stepping up its campaign against reporters. After quashing post-9/11 freedom-of-information requests in the name of national security, it has now set it sights on the sacred reporter/source relationship.
Choking the official channels for government reporting has increased the likelihood that reporters will seek sources that are not sanctioned by the government—like, say, leakers. Now the feds are bullying journalists into submission or, failing that, into jail.
At least, Jim Taricani isn't going to jail. The reporter for NBC-owned WJAR Providence, R.I., who helped uncover local government corruption, was sentenced to six months of house arrest last week after being convicted of contempt for refusing to reveal a source. U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres said he spared Taricani because the 55-year-old reporter is living with a heart transplant and a pacemaker. Forgive us if we're not touched by Judge Torres' gesture. Taricani endured three years of legal hell and still faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fees—just for doing his job.
Taricani wasn't put through the wringer because the government was desperate to uncover the source of a videotape demonstrating local corruption. After all, the leaker recently came forward, which should have closed the matter. No, the feds wanted to send a message: Cross us, and we'll take you down.
If sources can no longer count on protection and have to wonder how a reporter will hold up under threat of prison, the next potential “Deep Throat” may decide to maintain a deep silence.
This assault on one of journalism's key protections chills broadcast speech just as much as the administration's crackdown on indecency. But it also endangers the public's right to know who in the government and elsewhere is trying to screw them.
The government itself has recognized the importance of protecting journalists from unreasonable subpoenas. In its own internal guidelines, the Justice Department says, “The prosecutorial power of the government should not be used in such a way that it impairs a reporter's responsibility to cover as broadly as possible controversial public issues. This policy statement is thus intended to provide protection for the news media from forms of compulsory process, whether civil or criminal, which might impair the news-gathering function.” Sounds nice, doesn't it? This administration should practice what its own guidelines preach.
But a guideline is only a guideline and places no legal obligations on the government. It's time for a federal shield law to protect reporters and the public.
Yes, we're fully aware that trying to get a law protecting journalists past this Congress is like trying to book Eminem for the Super Bowl halftime show. But the news media still need to raise a big stink over Taricani's conviction, and the similar, ongoing threats against other journalists (Judith Miller, Tim Russert, Matt Cooper, et al). Reporters don't have an unqualified exemption to ignore subpoenas, but the government also should not be allowed to invoke “compelling interest” at will to start criminalizing investigative journalism.
Both NBC and the Radio-Television News Directors Association spoke out strongly for a federal shield law last week. Also, a group of journalists is calling for a “sunshine in government” week to jawbone the issue. We join that call and urge every journalistic organization that cares about pursuing the truth to do the same.
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