By Ralph E. Hanson
July 14, 2005
Charleston Daily Mail
Something is wrong with the news business when journalists who do the wrong thing get book contracts and those who do the right thing get sent to jail.
Consider the following examples:
On the other hand, NY Times reporter Judith Miller is now serving a four-month sentence for keeping a promise of confidentiality to a source. Miller made headlines for refusing to testify to a federal grand jury investigating the outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame by columnist Robert Novak. Plame’s name and identity was leaked to Novak apparently in reprisal for Plame’s husband unearthing information that questioned President Bush’s justification for going to war with Iraq.
Don’t get started about Miller being a member of the out-of-control liberal press. Miller is likely protecting a member of the Bush administration. Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, who was under the same court order as Miller, did testify before the grand jury after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal and his employer told him to testify. Cooper had previously identified I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff as one of his sources, and more recently President Bush’s deputy chief of staff Karl Rove as another.
The Miller/Cooper case isn’t the only one lately about journalists being jailed.
In December of last year, Rhodes Island television reporter Jim Taricani was sentenced to six-months house arrest for refusing to identify the source who gave him an FBI surveillance tape that showed a city official taking a bribe. Despite the fact that Taricani’s source identified himself to the court, Taricani still had to serve his sentence. Taricani’s only crime was refusing to testify about information that was already known.
Miller and Taricani are serving their time primarily to teach journalists a lesson. Their testimony would contribute little to grand jury investigations. Columnist Bob Novak knows who leaked Plame’s name, and he has apparently cooperated with investigators. Taricani’s source identified himself, so Taricani’s testimony was again redundant. Prosecutors seemingly want want to prove they can compel reporters to testify, even if this will limit journalists’ ability to report on controversial public issues.
It seems odd in this age of increased scrutiny of journalists by bloggers, politicians, and the public, that reporters engaging in misconduct should receive extensive financial rewards from book contracts, while those who take a stand on principle should be punished.
The current talk in Congress of a federal shield law to protect journalists from having to testify about confidential sources is clearly a step in the right direction, but it is even more important that we as a nation recognize and respect the work done by reporters who are serving the public interest.
Hanson is an associate professor of journalism at West Virginia University.