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No More Deep Throats? - Broadcasting & Cable

No More Deep Throats?

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By outing himself as Watergate's Deep Throat last week, W. Mark Felt reminded everyone in the media business how crucial anonymous sources can be in curbing the abuse of power. When Felt, then the FBI's No. 2, provided crucial guidance to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the rampant lawlessness of the Nixon White House, he did so with the reasonable assumption that a pact existed between source and reporter: Confidences are never revealed.

Without that security, potential whistleblowers would likely remain silent, and those in positions of power—whether in government or the corporate world—would rightly be emboldened to think that they were untouchable.

But today that bond between reporter and source is under attack. A raft of news organizations, including ABC, CBS and the Associated Press, have recently faced subpoenas to reveal confidential sources.

Then, of course, there was Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV Providence, R.I. Remember, he's the investigative reporter who was freed in mid April after four months of home confinement, his punishment for refusing to reveal who gave him a videotape that showed a local politician taking a bribe in an FBI sting operation.

Currently, there are “shield laws” in place in 31 states that prevent the kind of legal actions that have put so many news organizations under siege. Some in Washington are hoping that the unmasking of Deep Throat will lend steam to a bipartisan effort to pass a national shield law so journalists don't end up in jail for doing their jobs. Among those involved in the Senate are Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and in the House Richard Boucher (D-Va.).

At the forefront of the effort is Mike Pence, a Republican Congressman from Indiana. The former conservative talk-show host's The Mike Pence Show ran on radio from 1992 to 1999 and spawned a TV version that aired on a string of UPN stations for four years; he was elected to Congress in 2000.

Hoping to build support for a national shield law, Pence issued a timely statement amid the Deep Throat hoopla. The lawmaker expressed his doubts that, given the “litany of federal prosecutions” attempting to force reporters to reveal sources, it's doubtful that a latter-day Mark Felt would be helping out a wannabe Bob Woodward in an underground parking garage. Pence is hoping to get a hearing by the Judiciary Committee on the bill he's co-sponsoring, dubbed the “Free Flow of Information Act,” by the end of the July. The day when it's likely to come to a vote, however, is a long way off.

Pence probably won't get any support from the White House in his efforts. Coincidentally, on June 2, a day after the Deep Throat story broke, George W. Bush met with the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Though saying he is a “First Amendment guy,” the president told the RTDNA he wasn't familiar with the specifics of the Free Flow of Information Act, so he couldn't say whether he supported it. However, in talking about a current case in which Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine have been held in contempt of court for refusing to divulge who their sources of information regarding the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, the president indicated that he approved of the court's effort to force journalists to out their sources. “We're constantly trying to find the [unidentified] source in the White House,” he said. “Seems to me the balance is just right, when you think about it.”

No, it's not. The balance is out of whack. Pence is right. It's unlikely in the current climate that Mark Felt would have come forward. And if he did, the only thing protecting him would have been Woodward and Bernstein's willingness to do jail time. We need a national shield law.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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