Saturday, February 24, 2007

Confidential sourcing done right...

Journalists and confidential sources. Should journalists give up the names? Should they go to jail if they don't? That issue is at the center of one of the biggest trials in the country right now... The Scooter Libby perjury trial. We all know that Judith Miller didn't give up her source. And of course, Mathew Cooper and Time did the opposite. Our case studies are due on Monday, so I won't talk about this case.

I want to talk about the Balco case and the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters.
Did you know Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada didn't give up their source and also didn't go to jail.

Last week a lawyer for Balco, the Bay area lab that produced the undetectable steroids, admitted in court that he leaked the grand jury testimony by Barry Bonds and other athletes on Steroid use to Fainaru-Wada. So, the federal government decided to drop their case to send the two reporters to jail for 18 months for not revealing their source.

Troy Ellerman, 44, agreed in court documents last week to plead guilty to four charges of disclosing the transcripts in violation of a judge's order. Ellerman could go to jail for two years and pay more than $250,000 in fines.

So the journalists are off the hook. Ironically though, they still won't reveal their source, even though everyone now knows it was Ellerman.

Did the two reporters do the right thing? I think they did. The government came after the two journalists and tried to get the reporters to do their work for them. As we have discussed before, in matters of national security or impending harm, journalists may be compelled to give up their confidential sources.

What matter of national security was involved here? All Williams and Fainaru-wada did was break one the biggest sports stories of the last few decades.

The baseball players and the Olympic sprinter named weren't even hurt. Giambi and Sheffield are still playing. Even Bonds, who could be indicted any day for lying to the grand jury, just signed a new contract with the Giants.

I would even argue the two reporters did a service to the public and to the athletes who don't take the drugs.

"CW Nevius" blogged about this case in, an online affiliate of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"There were some uncomfortable moments for Williams and Fainaru-Wada at their hearing in San Francisco when the judge asked them, "Didn't you know this was wrong?'' The simple reply is yes, they did. But the longer answer is, that's pretty much the job description. To get the story, to get it right, and to get it first. No one said the stories they printed from the testimony wasn't true."

Was it wrong to publish the grand jury testimony that is supposed to be a secret? I don't think so. The two reporters were shown information and given the green light to report it from Ellerman. They didn't break the law, Ellerman did.

Nevius contends it might have been wrong to publish the secret testimony, "but again, this isn't a matter of nuclear weapons or terror plots. This is about athletes in professional sports who looked us in the eye and lied. Incredibly talented players who decided to cheat to make themselves bigger and stronger."

I agree. Steroid use is illegal and it's unethical. It taints the integrity of the game and it plays th fans of baseball for a fool.

Because of this case and the book, "Game of Shadows," the MLB is trying to make steroid testing stricter and more reliable.

The information Fainaru-wada and Williams published was true, accurate and compelling...what we as journalists strive for. Good for them for not revealing the source. And, in the end, the system worked itself out. The government found the leaker without using the journalists. Just as it should be.



At Sunday, February 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting moral quandary here. First of all why on earth would the lawyer risk his professional standing to help out two reporters. That I don't understand. Regardless, JE you say that Ellerman broke the law but the reporters didn't, they just passed along the information they received. Similar to the Pentagon Papers... I'm not sure if I agree.

Grand jury testimony is sacred and in many cases crucial to getting information. If people who give testimony are afraid their testimony will be leaked then the power of the grand jury is significantly diminished... So you could argue that this is an issue concerning the national security of our legal system.

If a reporter willfully enables a crime (the leak), then is he or she not liable as well? But it is such a good story that the public deserves to know about... It just screams for the Potter's box.


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