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 (DV) Cox: Shielding and Justice







Shielding and Justice  
by Jeff Cox
October 9, 2006

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Hard as it is for me to imagine sometimes, not every working journalist has seen the movie All the President's Men or even read the book.

Those who haven't somehow managed to get their inspiration elsewhere. But for those of us who have, the impression is indelible.

All the President's Men quite simply is the Rocky of reporting. 

After watching the movie, those of us born with ink in our veins did not want to run swiftly through the cheering streets of Philadelphia but rather look to cultivate our own Deep Throats, to experience that moment when Jason Robards says, "Run that baby," to tell a source that if he is still on the phone in 10 seconds it will be confirmation to go with our story.

Washington Post reporters Woodward (played dead-on by Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (portrayed with equal brilliance by Dustin Hoffman) helped bring down a president and changed the news business forever, albeit in ways that have not always been positive.

The craving for a "Woodstein" moment has led to egregiously irresponsible journalism from more reporters than any of us care to remember. Unnamed sources, of critical importance to the Post's exposure of the Watergate scandal, have become in some quarters a willy-nilly staple of newsgathering.

In totality, though, we all owe an incalculable debt to those reporters who can nail down sources who will speak out about wrongdoing, and to the sources themselves who often risk severe consequences by telling their stories.

Personally, I am not a fan of unnamed sources. Sometimes, though, you need to make concessions. Sometimes, the names need to be changed to tell important stories.

Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada have told an important story, and needed to protect their sources' identities to do so. The two San Francisco Chronicle reporters wrote a book about the odious scandal surrounding steroids in baseball and its poster child, home-run king Barry Bonds.

Their reporting has led to a congressional investigation and may yet topple Bonds before he reaches the pinnacle of his pursuit, the 755 homers hit by Hank Aaron.

That is unless, of course, George W. Bush doesn't throw them in jail first.

As you may recall, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has never quite made it to the top of our president's reading list. Bush doesn't place a particularly high premium on journalistic freedom, and it's his administration's position that unless Williams and Fainaru-Wada give up their sources, they should be tossed in prison. Bush's stooges in the Justice Department believe that if reporters are actually allowed to protect their sources it could lead to leaks in this already sieve-like White House.

Fortunately, some people get it when it comes to freedom of the press.

Pennsylvania's own Arlen Specter, the Republican U.S. senator never afraid to take on his party's establishment, has come to the defense of Williams and Fainaru-Wada, taking the heretical approach that a bill he has co-sponsored establishing a shield law allowing journalists to protect their sources ought to be passed by Congress.

Joining him are stalwarts like Ted Olson, Bush's former solicitor general whose wife was killed in the airplane that flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. Bipartisan support comes from Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who introduced the bill last year with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

"One of the most vital functions of our free and independent press," Olson told the Senate Judiciary Committee recently, "is to function as a watchdog, working to uncover stories that would otherwise go untold."

Seems obvious enough to the average person, but bringing Bush on board will be another story.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, a Bush appointee, promised to throw Fainaru-Wada and Williams in prison for up to 18 months unless their appeals are successful to overthrow a previous court ruling. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, speaking on behalf of the administration at the Senate hearing, worried that passing the shield law would weaken Justice's ability to obtain information that threatens national security.

We've come to expect little of this administration as it pertains to individual liberties, but even this seems over the top. Forcing journalists to give up information pertinent to national security (steroids in baseball?) is one thing; this is petty, capricious and, one might hope, counterintuitive to a party that prides itself on guarding the power of the people.

Fainaru-Wada and Williams going to jail poses a much larger threat to national security than the administration's ham-handed efforts to gather information.

Bush needs to step into this thing now and call off the Justice dogs, if for nothing else than freedom's sake.

Jeff Cox is a freelance writer based near Easton, Pa. He can be reached at: jeffcox65@hotmail.com.

Other Articles by Jeff Cox

* Little League Fences
* 2005: It Was a Very Bad Year