Reporters need protection

Adrian Northrup

There is a secret war being fought in Washington. Instead of killing people and disputing land ownership, its goal is to shift the blame from the leaks on the inside to the whistle-blowers on the outside.

Just recently, two San Francisco Chronicle writers, who exposed BALCO grand jury testimony and steroid users in baseball, were sentenced to jail for a maximum of 18 months, according to an article in The Washington Post.

Their crime wasn’t driving under the influence or assault and battery. It was refusing to reveal the source that leaked them the grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and other professional athletes.

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the two reporters who used the information to write the book, “Game of Shadows,” have consistently said they would rather go to jail than testify in front of the grand jury investigating the leak.

The ruling is pending an appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the two reporters have acknowledged that they are in contempt of court for not complying with the subpoena.

Leaking grand jury testimony is a federal crime, and someone needed to be punished. As a result, the government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to zero in on the press as a scapegoat to hide their inability to keep people involved in the case quiet.

Obviously that put Fainaru-Wada and Williams in a very tough position. Should they comply with the subpoena and reveal their sources, or should they go to jail with a possible prison sentence? Neither solution looked inviting.

Still, Fainaru-Wada and Williams did the right thing in protecting their sources. Bottom line.

Who is going to talk to a reporter that can’t guarantee that source will remain nameless and safe? No one that is in the know in Washington or anywhere else.

The way I see it, the job of the press is to blow the whistle when something doesn’t seem right. When Washington officials infringe upon that freedom, it starts a chain reaction that will eventually hit close to home with every American.

When freedom of the press is lost, the freedom of the common citizen is lost as well. Who do you think exposes corrupt politicians, Wal-Mart sweatshops and shady police dealings? It sure as hell isn’t Tom DeLay or anyone in the government. As an American citizen, I feel it is my right to know the injustice and immorality in our political system.

Now I know that the Fainaru-Wada/Williams case isn’t exactly Watergate in terms of national importance, but it serves as a strong example of what is wrong in the U.S. government and its treatment of investigative journalism.

Also, think about the message this sends to aspiring journalists. Clearly it isn’t to expose the truth, because you’ll end up spending a year in jail or prison. The government hates it when you tell the public what they need to hear (especially in a time of war, but that’s an argument for another day).

Fainaru-Wada and Williams did more than the George Mitchell investigation ever dreamed of doing, and for some reason, they were punished instead of the people they exposed. Even Victor Conte didn’t have to spend 18 months in prison, and he distributed Barry Bonds’ juice. Jose Canseco came out and told the truth about what he saw and did with steroids and his only punishment was getting shelled when pitching for a semi-pro team. There’s a pattern here if you look closely.

However, in light of all of the government’s mishaps on this case, there have been people who are working to preserve freedom of the press in legislation. According to the San Francisco Chronicle from Sept. 21, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is one of three senators calling for a “federal media shield” that would prevent journalists from going to jail for protecting their sources on the federal level. Although the Bush administration, shockingly, opposes the bill, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Fainaru-Wada and Williams both serve as perfect examples of what is right in the world of journalism. As long as they continue to give the proverbial middle finger to prosecutors, journalism is safe.