Monday, October 31, 2005

Getting Our Priorities Straight

Northeastern University journalism prof Dan Kennedy recently lamented last Friday as "a dark day for journalism," citing concerns that Patrick Fitzgerald's indictment of Lewis Libby "blasted an enormous hole right through" journalists' right not to reveal anonymous sources. Here's how he summed up the broader implications:
Short of a national shield law -- something that seems unlikely to pass -- the reporter's privilege has now gone from tenuous to nonexistent. Perhaps some good will come out of this: A source will think very, very hard before he uses a reporter's promise of anonymity to engage in criminal behavior.

More likely, though, Fitzgerald's crusade will make it harder for journalists -- and journalism -- to expose the truth.
As further evidence of the widespread erosion of protection for journalists, Kennedy cites the case of Providence, RI television reporter Jim Taricani, who was sentenced to house arrest last year for refusing to identify who gave him a surveillance tape of a city official taking a bribe. Taricani and Judith Miller were both detained for protecting anonymous sources who may have violated the law by divulging information to the media. I agree that "exposing the truth" is a pressing imperative for the profession of journalism and the public interest, but firm distinctions must be made as to whether the crime in question is serious enough to warrant compromising journalists' anonymity prerogative.

Threatening journalists with jailtime for withholding sources is not something that should be done lightly. Reporters need to know that they can feel relatively free to rely on anonymous sources to supply sensitive information when on-the-record corroboration is unavailable. The adoption of a clear standard of when legal action may be brought against journalists, which would probably include capital and national security crimes, would help them understand the relative precedence of legal and journalistic priorities. While the media's right to protect anonymity is important, there are other imperatives that can and should supersede it, and the decisions about what should trump what and when should only come at the end of a vigorous public debate.

Interesting endnote: the sources in Kennedy's two cases both claimed that they either never bound their respective reporters to any confidentiality promises or that they unbound them before punitive action was taken. Two observations immediately spring to mind: one, that perhaps Kennedy's fears of a significantly compromised media are slightly overblown; and two, that holding journalists to strict confidence even in the face of imprisonment would be in most cases an extremely selfish position--and in any event, a fairly rare one.