JAZZMAN CHRONICLES. DISSEMINATE FREELY.
A FEDERAL SHIELD LAW
By Jack Random
There was something missing from the New York Times editorial “Defending Press Freedom” (10/22/07) and little wonder. The Times went to bat for a federal shield law now under consideration in congress to “protect reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources in federal court.”
Missing was any reference to the high profile cases that brought this issue to the public’s attention, none of which involved an insider attempting to reveal government wrong-doing or criminal activity.
We recall that the Times’ own Judith Miller was sent to jail for not revealing her contacts in the White House who coincidentally revealed the identity of a CIA operative. Judy Miller was not protecting a truth-teller in the government; she was protecting deceivers in the White House who disseminated misinformation through her office at the Times.
It worked like this: A confidential White House source (someone in Dick Cheney’s office) would deliver privileged inside “information” regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That “information” would find its way onto the front pages of the “paper of record” and the White House would in turn cite the Times in support of its position. In other words, Judy Miller used the reputation of the Times as a fence for White House propaganda.
Of course, Ms Miller did not to jail for that betrayal of the public trust. She went to jail for refusing to reveal whom in the White House leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson. In that sordid affair, Ms Miller and colleagues were not protecting a whistleblower but the person or persons that committed the crime. (Contrary to certain analysts who claim that a crime was not committed because it was not prosecuted, the failure to prosecute was only an admission that the prosecutor could not determine who committed the crime first.)
Another case where reporters faced prosecution for refusing to reveal sources was the BALCO steroids case in which two enterprising reporters received a mountain of confidential transcripts from a Grand Jury insider sworn to secrecy. They used this information to write a hot-topic book that gained a lot of media attention and damaged the reputation of baseball player Barry Bonds. It also compromised the integrity of the Grand Jury process.
With a government prone to secrecy and eager to defy any law that does not conform to its distorted notion of national security, there is in fact a compelling need for legislative protection of whistleblowers who wish to avoid the repercussions of doing the right thing. The example of former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Valerie’s husband) clearly demonstrates the consequences of truth telling (the fictitious Iraq-Niger uranium connection) when the truth conflicts with the government’s agenda.
The problem is: We have no such examples in today’s mainstream press. None of these cases illustrates a need for a federal shield law. If anything, they accomplish the opposite.
These were not heroes of the fourth estate serving the interests of the nation. They were, at best, serving their own interests and, at worst, serving the nefarious interests of the government.
The fact is: We need a federal shield law to protect the legitimate pursuit of journalism and the use of anonymous sources to that end.
Unfortunately, the cases before us fail the test.
The question becomes: How do we protect the legitimate uses of anonymous sources without providing cover for illegitimate or abusive uses?
It seems to me the more compelling need is for media reform to insure that the press fulfills its responsibility to the public first. If the media were truly independent and not subservient to corporate interests, its reporters would be worthy of protection.
JACK RANDOM IS THE AUTHOR OF THE JAZZMAN CHRONICLES (CROW DOG PRESS) AND GHOST DANCE INSURRECTION (DRY BONES PRESS). THE CHRONICLES HAVE BEEN POSTED ON NUMEROUS CITES OF THE WORLDWIDE WEB, INCLUDING THE ALBION MONITOR, BELLACIAO, PACIFIC FREE PRESS, BUZZLE, COUNTERPUNCH AND DISSIDENT VOICE.