Tag Archives: sources

The Monday Round-up

By Christopher B. Daly 

Happy 2015, dear readers!

For the first Monday of the new year, let’s get things rolling.

From the New York Times:

THIS JUST IN . . .

Times reporter James Risen went into a federal court today in Alexandria, Va., and told a judge under oath that he has no intention of revealing his confidential sources — ever. From the paper’s own story:

“I am not going to provide the government with information that they seem to want to use to create a mosaic to prove or disprove certain facts,” Mr. Risen said.

–BU Professor David Carr holds forth in his Media Equation column about the challenges facing those who operate on the traditional media model of “one to many.” Now, the many are moving toward a media approach that might be called “me to a few.” As usual, plenty to think about here.

–Can anyone write books on a hamster wheel? This piece finds one author.

–Here’s an op-ed that makes a case for the importance of narrative. The writer argues that evidence (and common sense) indicates that when people are sick and go to see their doctors, they want to describe their illnesses in terms of a story. (“My cousin came to visit and brought this infection, and at first it wasn’t so bad, but then . . .”) And I think most patients want to hear a story back from their doctors.

–This story about China’s ideological wars made my head spin. I think the reason (other than the early hour of the day) was the disorienting use of the term “leftist” in the Chinese context. As this piece indicates, if you’re a leftist in China, that means you are a loyal member of the Communist Party and endorse whatever the party bosses dictate. In my view, the term “leftist” refers to someone who supports individual liberties and resists statism, conformity, and bureaucracy, especially when it attempts to crush dissent or diversity. What China needs is a real “Left” to challenge centralized power and spread freedom of thought, expression, movement, and reproduction.

–A 2015 wish list from the paper’s “public editor,” Margaret Sullivan. She has a point, of course, about anonymous sources — which all journalists overuse — but so does her own paper’s James Risen, who is a good example of why we sometimes need confidential sources.

ELSEWHERE:

–On the Media has a special report on the infamous “Torture Report” by the Senate Intelligence Committee. H-t to OTM for keeping the spotlight on this important issue. We shouldn’t let holidays and other stuff take our eye off this ball.

Enough for now.

Peace in 2015.

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Does James Risen need a “shield law”?

By Christopher B. Daly 

The New York Times has an editorial worth reading today about one of its reporters, James Risen, who is facing a court order to reveal his confidential source for a book that he wrote in 2006. At issue is a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late last week that explains the whole case. The upshot: based on the Supreme Court’s erroneous ruling in the 1972 Branzburg case, the Circuit Court said the journalist has no choice: when the government demands to know who your source was, you have to spill the beans, or go to jail (and then spill the beans, I guess, unless the government plans to jail journalists for life).

As I have argued here and here and here, SCOTUS got Branzburg wrong, so it is hardly surprising that its progeny are similarly wrong. In my view, the First Amendment, when properly understood, would provide journalists all the protection they need to protect their sources. Until that 1972 error is corrected, we will continue to see these kind of rulings, and journalists — regrettably — will have to go to jail.

Here’s the Times editorial:

A Terrible Precedent for Press Freedom

By 

An egregious appeals court ruling on Friday has dealt a major setback to press freedoms by requiring the author of a 2006 book to testify in the criminal trial of a former Central Intelligence Agency official charged with leaking classified information. The ruling and the Justice Department’s misplaced zeal in subpoenaingJames Risen, the book’s author and a reporter for The Times, carry costs for robust journalism and government accountability that should alarm all Americans.

A federal district judge, Leonie Brinkema, was mindful of those costs two years ago when she ruled that a qualified reporters’ privilege to protect confidential sources, grounded in the First Amendment, applies in criminal cases and declined to compel Mr. Risen to reveal a confidential source in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former C.I.A. employee. The 2-to-1 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which overturned Judge Brinkema’s sound decision, relied on an overly sweeping reading of a murky 41-year-old Supreme Court decision that has been rejected by other federal appellate courts. The ruling also failed to respect the nearly universal consensus among states that there is a common law privilege for protection of reporters’ confidential sources.

The third member of the panel, Judge Roger Gregory, got it right, calling his colleagues decision a real threat to investigative journalism. “Under the majority’s articulation of the reporter’s privilege, or lack thereof, absent a showing of bad faith by the government, a reporter can always be compelled against her will to reveal her confidential sources in a criminal trial,” Judge Gregory wrote in a forceful dissent. “The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and, in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.” Judge Gregory found that the government has ample evidence to proceed with the prosecution without forcing a reporter to choose between protecting sources or going to jail.

The precedent set here is especially troubling since the Fourth Circuit, where the ruling applies, includes Maryland and Virginia, home to most national security agencies. If left to stand, it could significantly chill investigative reporting, especially about national security issues.

It was dismaying that the Justice Department issued a statement approving of the court’s wrongheaded legal conclusion barely a week after Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced new guidelines that are supposedly designed to better protect the news media from federal investigators in leak cases. But the department also said it was “examining the next steps in the prosecution of this case.” That should include withdrawing its demand that Mr. Risen testify about his sources.

This issue tests the new guidelines and their promise not to threaten journalists with jail for doing their jobs, except in “extraordinary” circumstances. If he has any intention to live up to that pledge, Mr. Holder should reopen the question of Mr. Risen’s subpoena.

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Protecting journalists’ sources

By Chris Daly 

It’s good to see the news media agreeing to close ranks on something. In the latest case, it is an attempt by the U.S. Justice Department to force a prominent, respected journalist to reveal the identity of his source. The government wants that identity revealed so that it can go ahead and punish the “leaker.”

According to a story in today’s NYTimes by Charlie Savage, just about every major U.S. news organization joined in urging a federal appeals court to “shield” the journalist, the indispensable James Risen, a Times reporter on national security issues who also wrote a book in 2006 called State of War. In his book, Risen, using confidential sources, embarrassed the CIA by detailing the agency’s failed attempts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. To my mind, that seems like valuable information that a free people ought to have access to, so that we can debate the wisdom of what it being done in other countries in our name. Without reporting like that done by Risen, we would all just be kept in the dark.

The story in the Times has plenty of valuable links to the original documents, including the media’s amicus brief. Here is a link to the key Supreme Court ruling on the issue (and be sure to read down to Justice Douglas’s stirring dissent, which gets it right).

For a fuller understanding of the historical backdrop of the case, here is an excerpt from my new book (due out in about a week) that details the U.S. Supreme Court’s handling of the landmark Branzburg case in 1972. Branzburg v. Hayes was the case that has shaped the legal, political, and constitutional debate over whether journalists should have a “shield law” to allow them to protect confidential sources.

From Covering America © Christopher B. Daly:

(pardon the formatting issues)

In the spring of 1968, [New York Times reporter Earl] Caldwell traveled to Memphis to cover the strike being waged by the city’s sanitation workers, supported by the Reverend Martin Luther

King Jr. Caldwell was in the Lorraine Motel on April 4 when a loud shot rang out.

The only journalist present at the scene, Caldwell immediately called the Times

newsroom and began dictating details of the King assassination, which the editors

spread across the top of page one. According to Caldwell, King had spent

most of the day in his room, then emerged around 6 p.m. onto the balcony, wearing

a black suit and a white shirt. Caldwell’s report continued:

Dr. King, an open-faced genial man, leaned over a green iron railing to

chat with an associate. . . .

The Rev. Ralph W. Abernathy, perhaps Dr. King’s closest friend, was

just about to come out of the motel room when the sudden loud noise

burst out.

Dr. King toppled to the concrete second-floor walkway. Blood

gushed from the right jaw and neck area. His necktie had been ripped

off by the blast.

 

King’s murder touched off a fresh round of violence in cities across America, and

Caldwell returned to the “riot beat” for much of the summer (fig. 12.5).

That fall, Caldwell went to San Francisco to become a West Coast correspondent

for the Times. Through his contacts among the few black reporters in the Bay

Area, he gained access to Black Power advocate Eldridge Cleaver, and by the end

of 1968, Caldwell was the most knowledgeable reporter in the mainstream press

about the emerging Black Panther Party, based across the bay in Oakland. As it

turned out, the Panthers were shrewd enough about the media to want coverage

in the New York Times, and they gave Caldwell access, as well as what reporters

call “color” (atmospheric details), on-the-record interviews, just about anything

he might want. His stories established that the Panthers were heavily armed and

were talking about violent revolution. Caldwell worried about how Cleaver and

the other Panthers would react to his reporting, but he didn’t need to. “The Panthers

wanted people to know what they were doing. They wanted me to write in

the paper about them having guns.”24 His reporting also attracted the attention of

the FBI, which was waging a nationwide campaign of surveillance and intimidation

against radical groups both black and white. That attention would develop

into one of the landmark Supreme Court rulings affecting reporters and their

ability to protect confidential sources.

The legal case began when FBI agents paid a visit to Caldwell and told him

that they wanted a lot more information about the Panthers. Caldwell told the

agents that everything he knew was right there in the newspaper, including the

fact that the Panthers were armed and that they were threatening to kill the president.

Even so, the government wanted more from Caldwell. He refused to talk,

however, believing that any appearance in secret before a grand jury would make

him look like an informant and dry up his sources. The agents were not satisfied,

and the Bureau turned up the pressure, warning him that he would be forced to

testify in court—a step that would not only destroy his relationship with the Black

Panthers but jeopardize his value as a reporter on any other beat as well. Facing

a possible court appearance, Caldwell destroyed most of his Panther files, but

there was still the matter of his testimony. In February 1970 he was served with

a subpoena ordering him to appear before a federal grand jury investigating the

Black Panthers. The subpoena did not name the Times, but the newspaper hired a

prestigious San Francisco law firm to represent Caldwell. Their advice: cooperate.

Hearing that, Caldwell tapped his network of black journalists, who steered him

toward a Stanford law professor, Anthony Amsterdam, a brilliant defense lawyer,

who agreed with Caldwell’s decision not to testify and offered to represent him pro

bono.25

After he continued to refuse to testify about his news sources, Caldwell was

found in contempt of court and ordered to jail, but he was allowed to remain free

while his case went to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The higher court

sided with Caldwell, but then the federal government appealed that ruling. Enroute

to the U.S. Supreme Court, Caldwell’s case was combined with two others

and filed under the heading Branzburg v. Hayes. Paul Branzburg was a reporter

for the Louisville Courier-Journal who had been an eyewitness to a drug crime.

(Thus he was not, strictly speaking, protecting a confidential source.) Paul Pappas

was a television news photographer working for a TV station in New Bedford,

Massachusetts, who had gone to nearby Providence to cover the local Black Panthers

chapter and spent several hours inside their headquarters. Like Caldwell,

Branzburg and Pappas were both journalists who had been ordered to testify

before grand juries; like Caldwell, they had refused on professional grounds.

In all three cases, the issue was not a classic instance of protecting the identity

of a confidential source. It was more a matter of preserving the journalists’ access

to sources, which would be destroyed if the people who were being reported on

suspected that the reporters had cooperated with law enforcement. All three cases

involved a constitutional claim that the First Amendment includes not only the

right to publish (and withhold) information freely but also the right to gather news

freely. Recognizing the stakes, news executives threw their institutional weight

behind Caldwell and the other reporters. Supporting briefs were filed by the Washington

Post Company, the Chicago Tribune Company, the American Newspaper

Publishers Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American

Newspaper Guild, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the

Press Photographers Association, and the ACLU—along with affidavits from such

respected journalists as Anthony Lukas, Walter Cronkite, and Marvin Kalb.

In a decision handed down on June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court narrowly

ruled against the journalists.26 Writing for the 5–4 majority, Justice Byron White

held that the First Amendment had to be balanced against the Fifth Amendment,

which guarantees criminal defendants the right to have their cases presented to

a grand jury before indictment. In his opinion White invoked the ancient legal

doctrine that “the public . . . has a right to every man’s evidence.” The only exceptions,

he said, are those instances in which the states have adopted laws specifically

granting certain categories of people a legal privilege against having to testify.

Such a “testimonial privilege” might protect a wife from testifying about her

husband, a doctor about a patient, or a priest about a penitent. In such cases,

legislatures determined that some other social good was worth the cost of allowing

the privileged category of people to avoid the grand jury. But, White said,

the Court could not take seriously the idea “that it is better to write about crime

than to do something about it.” If reporters know things that prosecutors want to

find out, they must tell what they know. Besides, the justice wrote, if the Court

created a special privilege for journalists, it would soon have to define who is

(and is not) a journalist—a task that raised the specter of government licensing

of journalists, which would be far more murky than determining who is a doctor

or a priest. “Almost any author may quite accurately assert that he is contributing

to the flow of information to the public,” White wrote, warning that just about

anybody could claim to be a journalist of one variety or another. Finally, White

observed that the U.S. attorney general had written a set of guidelines governing

the issuance of subpoenas to reporters, which the high court thought ought to

suffice for the bulk of cases.27 The majority opinion also included an invitation

to legislatures to create a “testimonial privilege” for reporters, and many state

legislatures went ahead and passed versions of what are known as “shield laws.”

In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Lewis Powell, though voting with the

majority, very nearly came down on the other side. He warned prosecutors that

“no harassment of newsmen will be tolerated,” and he wrote that if reporters feel

they are being abused by overzealous prosecutors seeking the names of confidential

sources, then those reporters should go to court and seek a protective order. “The

asserted claim to privilege should be judged on its facts by the striking of a proper

balance between freedom of the press and the obligation of all citizens to give relevant

testimony with respect to criminal conduct,” Powell wrote, saying it is up to the

courts to handle such claims on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, his joining with

the majority had the effect of denying journalists’ claims to a constitutional privilege.

Among the dissenters, Justice William O. Douglas wrote one of the most eloquent

statements of press freedom in history. Having staked out a position as a

First Amendment fundamentalist, Douglas saw the Caldwell and related cases

in clear-cut terms. “My belief is that all of the ‘balancing’ was done by those who

wrote the Bill of Rights,” he said, adding that “by casting the First Amendment

in absolute terms, they repudiated timid, watered-down, emasculated versions

of the First Amendment. . . .” The key to understanding the First Amendment,

Douglas argued, is to recognize that it exists for the benefit of the American people

as a whole. If the people are to govern themselves, they must have reliable,

independent sources of information. “Effective self-government cannot succeed

unless the people are immersed in a steady, robust, unimpeded, and uncensored

flow of opinion and reporting which are continuously subjected to critique,

rebuttal, and re-examination,” he wrote. In Douglas’s view, the free press cases

that come before the Court are not really about the press per se; they are about the

rights of the American people, the ultimate sovereigns of our system. The press,

which serves as the agent of its audience, is incidental to the greater purpose

of self-government. Douglas continued: “The press has a preferred position in

our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen

apart as a favored class, but to bring to fulfillment the public’s right to know.

. . . There is no higher function performed under our constitutional regime. Its

performance means that the press is often engaged in projects that bring anxiety

and even fear to the bureaucracies, departments, or officials of government.” He

concluded by warning that the Court’s majority opinion would reduce journalists

to stenographers, and that without the right to protect confidential sources, “the

reporter’s main function in American society will be to pass on to the public the

press releases which the various departments of government issue.”

The majority, however, did not see it that way. As a result of the Court’s 5–4

ruling against the journalists, reporters and their sources have operated in legal

jeopardy ever since, at least in federal courts.

On the state level, the Branzburg ruling had the effect of spurring many legislatures

around the country to enact shield laws to protect reporters in state courts, but Congress has steadfastly

refused to recognize the same right on the federal level. Ironically, the Branzburg

ruling also had another impact: it dried up what was probably the FBI’s greatest

source of information about the Black Panthers—the reporting that anybody

could read in the pages of the New York Times. Of course, by the time Caldwell’s

case was resolved, the Justice Department had lost much of its interest in the

Black Panthers. Most of Caldwell’s contacts were in jail, in exile, or dead.

* * *

Meanwhile, by the late 1960s, more and more people. . .

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