News Articles

Contemptible

12/12/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

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.

March