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Shielding the Truth

Jun 13, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Shortly after Philip Taubman joined The New York Times in 1979 he was assigned to Washington, where he covered the Justice Department and later the CIA and U.S. intelligence agencies. He was thrown into an atmosphere of paranoia and institutional secrecy. He faced an uphill battle to get any significant cooperation.

In the 1980s his efforts to develop sources paid off. On background, a congressman and a shadowy aide to the rebels in Nicaragua told him about U.S. plans to finance a secret war in Central America. The proof included a memorandum from the secretary of defense to then President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Taubman had to swear not to reveal the source, even if it meant going to jail.

His series of stories led to congressional hearings and affected administration policy. In 1983 Mr. Taubman won the prestigious George Polk Award for foreign affairs reporting for his coverage of American policy in Central America.

Mr. Taubman, now The New York Times Washington bureau chief, recalled the personal and professional struggles he went though in deciding to use anonymous sources to break that story. He made his comments during his keynote speech this past April at a journalism conference, “Who Can Be Trusted?-A Seminar on Sourcing,” which I helped organize at the University of Southern California, in association with the Discovery Times Network, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Press Club. Mr. Taubman had recently chaired a Times committee that studied the use of anonymous sources.

He expressed concern that anonymous sources can be misused but concluded they are necessary at times. “The day we outlaw the use of anonymous sources in the coverage of the CIA, the Pentagon, the White House, the State Department and other national security agencies,” said Mr. Taubman, “is the day we cease to cover them effectively.”

I was reminded of his comments when the identity of Watergate tipster Deep Throat was revealed to be a former FBI official. There was never a doubt in my mind that what W. Mark Felt did was justified. He was a hero. He bucked the system to reveal a basic violation of the public trust. He reminded us we all live by the rule of law. There are no kings in America, even among people who are rich or hold high office. So when anyone-for political purposes-perverts American justice to push an illegal agenda, then a well-timed leak to stop him or her is justified, in my opinion.

The flaw is that someone must pay the price under the current system. These days that is usually the reporter. There are currently a number of cases involving journalists who refused to give up a source and now face prison. Adding pressure, the war on terror and the war in Iraq have been used as reasons to curtail freedom of the press. In February The New York Times editorialized: “It’s hardly a secret that when national security is heightened, the values of government accountability, an informed citizenry and robust journalism can get short shrift. Close to a dozen reporters, for example, have been served with subpoenas or threatened with jail sentences in the past year for refusing to reveal confidential sources to federal investigators.”

That point was driven home later in February when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington decided that journalists have no privilege that protects them from being compelled to reveal confidential sources.

It is all too easy these days to blame the messenger, the journalists, for the problems we face. Every popularity poll shows journalists have a terrible image. And the current administration has played on that, usually treating the press as an opponent rather than as a participant in the democratic process. We have seen the implementation of the Patriot Act, which in part was designed to make it more difficult for the press to access information.

It is at just such a time that a nation of laws must add one more to the books: a shield law for journalists. There must be legal protections that allow established professional journalists to report all of the news, even if it doesn’t agree with the current party line.

A number of such laws have been proposed. Two similar bills bouncing around Congress give journalists an absolute privilege in protecting the identities of confidential sources. These are bipartisan efforts. The House bill was sponsored by Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rick Boucher, D-Va. The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and was similar to one put forward by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

Last week President George W. Bush met with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the first time a sitting president has done so since Harry Truman. However, when the news directors urged President Bush to consider a milder shield law bill, known as the Free Flow of Information Act of 2005, he dismissed it. President Bush said he wasn’t familiar with that particular bill. And while he did not state he would never sign a shield law for reporters, it was made clear it was highly unlikely.

Passage of a shield law is an issue of crucial importance not just to print, broadcast, electronic and online journalists but also to the public. The government can keep the curtains closed on often questionable inner workings only if the press is acquiescent. Our democratic system depends on journalists with courage, such as Mr. Taubman, and citizens of conviction, such as Mark Felt, and it needs protections for all legitimate media such as the shield laws.

To protect freedom, we must not allow blinders to be put over the independent eyes and ears that can keep the government honest. We must ensure that the press is in position to act as a counterweight when those entrusted with power use the color of authority to violate the laws of the land.