Free-Floating Hostility

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Jail for Journalists

During the Watergate Investigation, Woodward and Bernstein incorrectly reported that Hugh Sloan told the Watergate Grand Jury that White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman controlled a secret fund used to sabotage political enemies. Later, the were proved essentially right, Haldeman did control the money. Sloan was simply never asked to tell the grand jury that. During the shitstorm that followed, as the reporters tried to figure out what happened, they stumbled upon the plan of talking directly to members of the grand jury. Everyone is uncomfortable about this. No, the Post would not be breaking any laws. But the reporters would asking the grand jurors to break confidentiality, which would have been a crime. There is a quick rundown of concerns, including, "Woodward wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing safely on the right side himself."

I am outraged that journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Johnson, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters that have compiled the exhaustive history of steroids in post-strike baseball, are facing 18 months in jail. They are subject to contempt charges because they refuse to reveal the source of grand jury leaks during their work. The government, which can't seem to make any charges stick in this case, are now going after the reporters. It's horrible. In this column, Barry Bonds' attorney Michael Rains says there is no difference between these journalists and Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal trainer, who is also in jail on contempt charges. Rains is wrong. Anderson has refused to testify about his own criminal activity. The reporters have refused to testify about someone else's.

I do not, however, support a journalist shield law. I hate the message, that suddenly the first amendment isn't enough protect media organizations against the government. But more importantly, making journalists a protected class undermines the practice of journalism. This often becomes skewed by large newspapers and all the trappings of influence, but at it's roots journalists are simply citizens who take an active interest in their world. And then they use specific techniques to seek out truth and report it to their audience. That could be the millions who read the New York Times every day or the 40 people that read this blog. A shield law would give the government to right to define who exactly is a journalist. And that's not a good principle. Making journalists a protected class is not the answer.

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