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Monday, February 21, 2005


Jonathan Alter writes in NewsWeek:

Jim Taricani, a local TV news reporter in providence, R.I., cannot go to the grocery store. Because Taricani is a heart-transplant survivor, a federal judge is letting him serve his six-month prison sentence at home, but he is prohibited from using the Internet, talking to the media or leaving the house except for medical care. Taricani's crime is that he would not reveal to a grand jury who leaked him an FBI videotape that showed a top aide to former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci accepting a bribe. The leaker, a defense attorney, came forward to say he'd given Taricani the tape. It didn't matter. Judge Ernest Torres still ruled that Taricani must be placed under house arrest, while the attorney will likely get off with a wrist slap. Something strange is going on in the relationship between the media and the criminal-justice system. With the mainstream media less popular than HMO administrators, frustrated prosecutors in federal cases are increasingly shooting the messengers. It doesn't work in state court, because almost every state has either shield laws or court decisions that give journalists a "privilege" that allows them to refuse to testify. But while lawyers, clergy, psychiatrists and, under a recent Supreme Court decision, social workers can protect confidentiality before federal grand juries, journalists cannot. This is scary stuff. My greatest concern is not the personal fates of Taricani or Judy Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time, though the latter two are friends of mine who heard from a federal appeals court last week that they will likely go to jail for up to 18 months for refusing to testify before a grand jury in the Valerie Plame case. What worries me more are the consequences for the citizens of Providence, who aren't likely to catch a glimpse of their local officials taking envelopes of cash again any time soon; the baseball fans who wouldn't have known which players were juiced on steroids if the San Francisco Chronicle had not published grand jury testimony (those reporters are being threatened by prosecutors), and the broader American public, which may be entering an era where our news consists of press releases, spin and nothing much that the government does not want us to know.
An interesting debate, and he makes some good points about the need for journalists to have confidentiality. However, the way I read the first ammendment, it applies to all citizens with no special privilege for a journalists. This is especially true in our 'blogging age' when it is easy for any citizen to publish their thoughts, opinions, and information on the web. Most of us bloggers are not journalists and do not do any firsthand reporting. However, any of us could do so at any time and if that is the case, than why should some citizens get rights that others do not? Alternatively of course we can simply throw out the idea of all compelled testimony (something that is interesting to entertain.)


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