Eleven years ago, when I was in high school, there was this big fight that took place in our parking lot that involved about 100 kids, appeared to be racially charged and resulted in a lot of damage to people and property. A pair of our school newspaper photographers smartly grabbed their cameras and snapped a couple of roles of the action.
The police, of course, investigated the fight. However, when they ran out of their own leads, they wanted to see our unpublished photographs, you know, so they could get the bad guys. They were shocked when our 18-year-old editor had the audacity to tell them no, that it would be tantamount to a news organization becoming an agent of the police, that we had to protect our right to gather information and keep that information confidential. Well, the big bad police weren't about to let some high school girl tell them no. So they took her to court, where she eventually was found in contempt for refusing to turn over the negatives.
They were going to send an 18-year-old girl to prison.
For not turning over photos of a fight.
I'm reminded of this scene as our governtment is preparing to make another grave mistake along the same lines. A judge in San Francisco sentenced two reporters to jail time yesterday for refusing to reveal the source that leaked grand jury testimony to them in a series of articles aimed at exposing BALCO and the elite athletes it served with designer steroids. (The sentence has been stayed, pending appeal. But precedent is not on their side.)
The interesting thing to me is that I'm reminded of this not because of the threat of jail time, but because it never ceases to amaze me how far someone in power will go to prove their point when someone dares to tell them "no." Let's remember: Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada broke no laws in writing their stories. The information was brought to them, and reporting on it is not a crime. The only one to break laws before their refusal to testify was the person who leaked the information.
So, rather than devote the necessary man hours and financial resources it would take to do good detective work that might actually help them find the person who actually broke the law, the government has come after a pair of reporters who have been nothing but ethical and professional in their investigating of an issue that has ramifications far beyond the playing field. The prosecutors and judge taken the easy road, which involves simply flexing their muscles and hoping these two reporters cave. As one analyst put it, the government has taken it "to the mattresses," an appropo description for what amounts to mob-like coersion: "Don't want to give us what we want? Let's see how you like it on the inside!"
Memo to the government: Do your own dirty work. Don't pick on a couple of good journalists just because you're too lazy and/or inept to find the real law-breaker yourself.
Despite the numerous hits the journalism industry has taken in the last decade or so (see: Blair, Jayson), guys like these make me proud to call myself a journalist. I had the pleasure of seeing them do a presentation on investigative journalism to about 300 high schoolers at a journalism conference I attended last spring, and I came away awed at their humility and their steadfast belief that what they were writing absolutely had to be written. They give me hope for what our profession can be, despite its flaws.
That high school girl? She's now a professional journalist who never went to jail; the government wisely realized they were barking up the wrong tree. Let's hope these prosecutors and judge similarly wake up and realize the kind of damage they're doing ... before it's too late.
For more on why this such a bad thing, not only for the writers but for our country, please read the following articles, especially -- especially -- if you think these writers are getting what they deserve. A free press must be allowed to operate without restriction:
- "Outcome for Chroncicle reporters means we all lose," by Wright Thompson, ESPN.com
- "The BALCO Boys Face Prison. How Is That Possible?" by CW Nevius, San Francisco Chronicle
- "A Real Game of Shadows," by Jim Caple, ESPN.com