Hold the Fireworks
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/3/2005 8:00:00 PM
Last week was tough on the First Amendment and many of the other rights we celebrate on Independence Day.
Sadly, the Supreme Court declined to even hear the appeal of The New York Times' Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper. Both journalists have refused to reveal sources to a grand jury. After the high court's decision, Time, without Cooper's consent, said it would provide his documents, a decision that seems to be without modern precedent by a major news organization. The move by Time represents a new, chilling chapter in the Bush administration's already rocky relationship with journalists.
Time said it would turn over documents that would keep Cooper off the witness stand and out of jail. The magazine will do so, said Time Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine, even as it acknowledges that the action will have “a chilling effect on our work that may damage the free flow of information that is so necessary in a democratic society.” The New York Times, which thankfully did not follow suit, said it was “deeply disappointed” by the Time decision.
Time and Pearlstine concluded the magazine had to honor the Constitution and the dictate of the courts. But capitulation does not honor the Constitution or the tradition of press freedom in this country. Nor does muzzling the press serve the best interests of the American public. If journalists promise confidentiality only to have corporate parents give it up, whistle-blowers will whistle no more.
Revealing confidential sources under the threat of jail time and stiff fines makes it that much harder for the public to learn what its government is trying to do—or, more importantly, trying to hide.
However flawed the practice of newsgathering can be, journalists serve a vital function in keeping the public informed. What is kept away from tenacious journalists is kept away from the American people.
If that weren't enough to put a damper on our Fourth of July, a Washington federal appeals court refused to vacate the contempt-of-court citations of four other journalists, including ABC's Pierre Thomas, for refusing to reveal their sources—in a civil suit, no less.
Now they will have to start paying $500 a day in fines, protection money extorted by the courts for the privilege of safeguarding the First Amendment.
We don't force attorneys to testify against their clients, or psychiatrists against their patients, or priests against their penitents, even if that means some heinous crime goes unpunished. It is the price we pay for protecting citizens from an overzealous government.
There is an urgent need for federal protection for the special relationship between journalists and confidential sources that allows this important check on government. All but one state—Wyoming, where the issue hasn't come up—have either a shield law or a court decision upholding reporters' privilege.
Lucy Dalglish, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, predicts that without that protection, “civil litigants and prosecutors will find that the fastest way to make their cases is to go after the media. And in the federal system, there will be nothing to stop them, and there will be subpoena after subpoena after subpoena.”
Newspaper and communications unions are calling for two minutes of silence in newsrooms around the nation at noon on Wednesday, July 6, the day the district judge may impose a jail sentence on Miller.
After those 120 seconds are up, let's make some noise and get a federal shield law passed.
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