Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Journalists in Jail

As most everyone knows by now, a federal judge has sent Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, to jail for contempt. Matthew Cooper, a Time magazine reporter, very narrowly escaped jail by agreeing at the last minute to obey the law.

The issue was their refusal to identify anonymous sources to a grand jury, even after the judge ordered them to do so. Like so many journalists, they believe that their profession is so special that it justifies their refusing to honor the duty of every citizen to obey the law. At least Ms. Miller knows she is wrong. According to an AP report, she told the judge, "I do not view myself as above the law. You are right to send me to prison."

There is no basis in the Constitution for the superior position journalists claim. Their constant reference to the First Amendment doesn't work. All it does is prevent Congress from abridging freedom of the press. It doesn't convey to journalists a special privilege to disregard the law, or to obey it only when they deem it appropriate. Journalists also constantly harp on "the public's right to know." There is no such right, plain and simple.

Most states have "shield laws" for journalists, specifying certain conditions under which they can protect the confidentiality of sources. Ultimately, however, a judge can always order that the identity of sources be revealed in specific cases. There is no federal shield law that would have protected Miller and Cooper when they decided to ignore a federal grand jury, a federal prosecutor, and a federal judge.

Shield laws for journalists are fine with me, including one at the federal level if Congress should wish to create it. But in the final analysis journalists are citizens, and if they refuse to obey the law they should go to jail. This is particularly true at the federal level when they steal classified documents, or received stolen classified documents, and then publish them. Many journalists consider this to be the gold standard of their profession. In fact it's criminal, and they should pay for it.

The New York Times, which considers itself beyond the dictates of any earthly authority, made this idiotic assertion in one of its reports:

The case highlights a collision of the press's right to protect its sources, the government's ability to investigate a crime and even the Bush administration's justification for going to war in Iraq.

Say what?


Blogger Amal said...

I have to say I am totally not with you on this one Tom. The Bush Administration has consistently (from day 1) tried to muzzle and intimidate the media. This is no different.

12:35 AM, July 07, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

I seems to me that if the Bush Admistration were involved in cover-up they would be on the Journalists side on this one and I think that they are at least being publicly neutral.

As far as Amalinka's assertion that the Bush administration has been muzzling the media. Give me a break I think it is the other way around. The media's hatred of the administartion has made themselves irrelavent.


8:28 AM, July 07, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps Bush is taking some lessons from his friend Pooty Poot on how to deal with the independent media. :-)

9:40 AM, July 07, 2005  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I think you have it abvout right, here, Tom. The courts do recognize certain privileges, such as attorney-client, doctor-patient, etc. But even these protections have exceptions. Miller does not have the right to protect a source when national security issues may be at stake. Journalists must be more careful in doling out oaths of confidentiality that are not sanctioned by law.

1:39 PM, July 07, 2005  
Blogger carla said...

As much as I've thought Miller was a hack journalist whose done a truely terrible job in her reporting, I agree with what she is doing. Ethically, journalists must protect their sources.

Matthew Cooper's speaking to the Grand Jury is shameful and a breach of journalistic ethics. His career should be essentially over.

I think a federal shield law is absolutely necessary for journalists. While the use of anonymous sources is overdone (IMO), the a free press must be able to collect information from anonymous sources in order to keep the public informed.

Many sources cannot come forward without threat of serious retaliation.

4:37 PM, July 07, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

As I said, I agree that a federal shield law would be acceptable. In the end, though, journalists have no right to grant absolute guarantees of confidentiality to sources. That point is made virtually every time the issue is tested, and rightly so.

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the whole thing is the incredible arrogance of journalists and editors. They feel that they are the ones who must decide what can be published and when sources are to be protected. Even when they are in possession of classified information, almost always illegally obtained, the government must beg them not to publish. The point being made lately is that journalists are not above the law, and that's the way it must be.

12:22 AM, July 08, 2005  

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