WJAR Providence, R.I., investigative reporter Jim Taricani -- released 10 days ago from house arrest following a contempt conviction for refusing to reveal a confidential source -- called on legislators to pass a federal shield law that would protect journalists facing a similar plight.
“We have judges and law enforcement agencies forcing reporters to become de facto investigators and it is not a good thing,” Taricani said Monday at the Radio & Television News Directors convention in Las Vegas.
It was the first time he has spoken publicly about the experience.
Taricani, who spent 121 days in home confinement, was released about two months early. While serving his sentence, he was forbidden to work or give interviews. Now, Taricani is back at the station and says he is already working on another investigative series. He plans to speak at several upcoming conventions, but says he does not plan to write a book about his ordeal.
Under current law, Taricani pointed out, grand juries can compel reporters to divulge confidential sources or face prosecution. Until courts throw out that precedent or a federal shield law is passed, Taricani said, reporters are at risk.
Versions of a federal shield law have been introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives.
Shield laws exist in 33 states, including Rhode Island.
Earlier in his career, Taricani twice faced contempt of court threats over a confidential source. In both cases, the state shield law protected him. The judge on one of those state cases is the same judge, now on the federal bench, who presided over his most recent case.
At sentencing, Taricani said Chief U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres criticized local broadcast news for only doing stories for the sake of ratings and not properly researching stories. In Taricani's case, the reporter recounted, the judge said the story “was not newsworthy and should not have aired.”
“When judges try to determine what is or is not newsworthy, we are in big trouble,” Taricani said. The reporter and his news director, Betty-Jo Cugini, said they could not have fought the legal battle without unwavering support from WJAR parent NBC Universal. Over the three-year investigation, the company paid Taricani’s half-million dollar legal bills, $80,000 in fines and his salary.
As Taricani was speaking to RTNDA members, there was an NAB congressional breakfast being held next door at the Las Vegas Hilton Convention Center. WJAR News director Cugini urged the news executives in attendance to seek out their local representatives and push for a shield law. “This is the beginning of our fight,” she said.