Journalist, still protecting sources that feed them lies

A column from Steve Chapman showed up on the Strib commentary pages today that I agree with 100%. The basic premise is this, should a journalist protect its sources when they are being used to discredit or smear someone, which is quite different than protecting whistleblowers who are trying to bring to light the wrong doings of the powerful.

Chapman sets up the story by highlight the plight of Steven Hatfill,

Hatfill was a casualty of the anthrax scare of 2001. Just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, someone mailed letters containing anthrax spores to several news organizations and a pair of U.S. senators. Some 22 people were infected, and five died.

In the aftermath, the Justice Department labeled Hatfill, who had done research on biological warfare for the Army, a “person of interest.” Secret information leaked to the press suggested he was the terrorist behind the attacks.

But the suspicions were wrong. Hatfill asserted his innocence, and he was never charged in the case. He sued the government, The New York Times and others for damages. Federal Judge Reggie Walton concluded that the claims have “destroyed his life” even though “there’s not a scintilla of evidence to suggest Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with” the anthrax attacks.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty horrible. But there is some hope,

Years later, Hatfill is still awaiting vindication. Last week, he inched closer when the judge ordered Toni Locy, a former USA Today reporter, to disclose her sources about Hatfill—or face fines of up to $5,000 a day for contempt. A host of news organizations, including Tribune Co., filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging that she be spared from providing evidence.

Chapman has some courage here, he is challenging this concept, that his employer has supported.

The news media keep losing these cases, yet journalists and their attorneys refuse to recognize reality. They continue to insist on their right to keep evidence of wrongdoing and lawbreaking from the courts, no matter the collateral damage.

I agree with this 100%, no wait, 110%. I just don’t get this whole journalist concept of secrecy when you are lied to. If you share information with me as an unnamed source, and it turns out you are lying to me, that you are using me for your own ends, guess what, I am going to drag your name through the mud so that your word is questioned in the future.

Locy reported on the suspicions about Hatfill based on interviews with confidential sources in the Justice Department and the FBI, who may have violated federal law in leaking information about him. Since she discarded her notes and says she can’t remember which of 10 people told her about Hatfill, the judge says she has to turn over the names of all 10 so Hatfill’s lawyers can question them.

What is it with reporters these days, no freaking memory, who do they think they are, Alberto Gonzalez?

Judge Walton found that the identity of her sources “goes to the heart” of his case, and that there is no other way he can get the information. Without Locy’s testimony, the damage done to Hatfill would go unpunished and unrepaired.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and its allies also think the $5,000-a-day fine, which the judge says she must pay herself, is outrageously excessive. But the point of such fines is not to accommodate the financial resources of the person who is defying the law—it’s to force her to comply, in the interests of justice.

Yeah, that is right, the fine should be an annoyance, something that these folks can just brush off, but something that hurts, that will make them do the right thing and hand over the liar, the leaker.

Chapman summarizes quite nicely in his final paragraph,

Journalists and citizens may disagree on the proper role of the news media in a free society. But when the press finds itself protecting the guilty at the expense of the innocent, it’s made a wrong turn somewhere.

– Josh

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