It’s a shame that journalists are going to jail over doing their job. However, it is completely justified and pressure was rightly put on them to reveal their sources about who leaked them secret grand jury testimony. Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada were sentenced to 18 months in prison, pending appeal. Rightfully so, I say.
They’ve become somewhat of a rallying cry for reporters all around, and unfortunately so. Their attempt to turn this into a First Amendment fight is a bit ridiculous.
First and foremost, this is not a First Amendment issue. There is no attacking on the press through this sentence. Reality is that reporters use and need anonymous source, but reality is also that if you get called on your anonymous sources by the courts, you reveal the sources. This is not because the courts want to bash the First Amendment, it is because they want to protect the First Amendment.
It’s simple, really, if you get called on your anonymous sources and don’t reveal them, you’re left with nothing as a story. Everything you write begins to crumble like a house of cards. The courts asking reporters to reveal sources is in line with the First Amendment because it maintains the integrity of the free press. We need a viable free press in this country, if we have one that relies on anonymous sources granted complete immunity, we begin to lose that.
The problem is that journalists have lost sight of this. They point to Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate and how that would not have been uncovered if it weren’t for anonymous sources. They go to the lame crutch argument of saying that if you can’t protect the sources, then people aren’t going to come forward. Well, we’ve known for how many years now that there was potential that an anonymous source would have to be revealed? This is especially so when the person leaking the information did something illegal when they leaked the information. Have people stopped coming forward?
What this ruling allows is for anonymous sources to continue to exist, while also maintaining the integrity of the free press.
Remember Jayson Blair? The New York Times reporter who decided to take extreme liberties with this whole anonymous sources deal…you know…by making things up?
You know USA Today…pretty successful publication, right? You know that it has been their policy to not use unnamed sources? You know, the publication that responsibly reported on the NSA wire tapping program, informing the public and doing it based on information that the public could trust. Not taking a side or showing an agenda, just telling the public, hey, this is going on, should we not talk about it no matter what side you support?
Anonymous sources are a journalistic epidemic. I don’t usually stick up for the Bush Administration, but when they say that the New York Times is out of control with regards to the way they use anonymous sources in reporting the activities of the administration, he is absolutely correct.
Using this Balco trial as an example, the person who leaked this information to the reporters headed to jail, did something illegal. If ever we needed to reveal sources, this is it. Anonymous sources often have agendas. Why are they coming forward and why do they wish to remain anonymous? Anonymous sources fuel rumor journalism. Can great stories be done with anonymous sources? Oh yeah. Of course. But, great stories can be done without anonymous sources.
Journalists today need to look into the mirror and take a long look at their practices and the direction of the business. Reliance on anonymous sources is more of a risk to the First Amendment than these Chronicle reporters spending time in jail.