U.S. media principles tested by war on terror

  • World
  • Saturday, 02 Jul 2005

By Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As it wages war in the name of democracy, the U.S. government stands accused by critics of eroding freedom of the press at home as journalists face jail for principles they say are enshrined in the Constitution. 

But with the media struggling to regain public confidence after a string of reporting scandals, journalists too are under pressure not to let their principles override security at a time when the United States has declared a "war on terrorism." 

Time magazine said this week it would hand over a reporter's notebooks to a grand jury despite that reporter's willingness to go to jail to keep his promise to protect his sources. 

Time's Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller of the New York Times have been held in contempt of court for refusing to name sources they spoke to about CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose name was revealed by a conservative columnist in 2003. 

Time's move was condemned by the International Federation of Journalists, which has 500,000 members in over 100 countries, as a "profound betrayal" of principle. 

"It's open season on journalists -- and by extension, information the government doesn't want people to know," The Seattle Times wrote in an editorial. 

Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the judiciary had become more aggressive in demanding information from journalists since the 9/11 attacks. 

"We're seeing more subpoenas in the federal courts in recent months than we have in the last 35 years," Dalglish said. "We're seeing more and more secrets being kept by the federal government since 9/11." 

That means reporters are ever more dependent on confidential sources, even though their use has contributed at times to falling public confidence in the media after scandals involving shoddy reporting and plagiarism. 

Rodney Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond Law School, said the views of the American public and media were growing further apart. "To most people it's very hard to see why a journalist's right to protect his sources would trump national security," Smolla said. 


The latest soul searching came after the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that Cooper and Miller should be held in contempt for refusing to reveal who they spoke to in connection with the Plame case. Cooper may avoid imprisonment but Miller could be jailed despite never writing about the conversations in question. 

A federal appeals court said this week four journalists could be held in contempt for refusing to name sources in the case of a nuclear scientist once suspected of espionage. 

And in December, a Rhode Island reporter was sentenced to six months of house arrest for refusing to name a source. 

While media reaction to Time's decision was mixed, with some supporting its argument that journalists are not above the law, there were few people writing in support of jailing Miller and Cooper. 

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said it was "over the top." "It's a dangerous thing when in politics we end up wanting our enemies to go to jail," he said during a discussion of the case on air on Thursday. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the cases set a bad example for the media in repressive countries. 

"President George W. Bush has raised the need for greater press freedom in Russia, the Middle East, and Asia, but the message from U.S. prosecutors and courts is being heard more clearly in repressive corners of the world," the CPJ said. 

But Bob Giles, curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, said it was hard to see "a Bush fingerprint" on the case of Cooper and Miller. They were caught up in the investigation by a special prosecutor into the alleged leak of Plame's identity by the Bush administration. 

Plame's diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, says the leak was an attempt to discredit him after he had publicly disputed a claim by Bush about Iraq's attempts to secure illegal weapons. 

Bush has said a journalist's right to protect sources is a "difficult tightrope." 

"Look, I'm a First Amendment guy," he said. "On the other hand, there's some information which could damage our ability to collect information, and that's where the real rub has been so far from my perspective." 

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