September 06, 2006

A Little Journalistic Arrogance

Let’s make something clear – the First Amendment confers no special rights on journalists that are not granted to other Americans. Journalists are not a priesthood set apart from the rest of the citizenry, permitted to engage in activities that the rest of us are not. And there is no exemption from the law granted to the press that does not otherwise exist for the people in general. And that is why this whining column by sportswriter John Canzano grates on me so – it claims a privilege for reporters that is not recognized under the Constitution or statutes of the United States of America.

T he reporters working the story broke no rules. They violated no laws. They did their jobs, and like a lot of journalists, they probably believed that a free press protected under our Constitution was not only a good thing, but an integral part of a democracy.

It all sounds great.

Until you consider they're facing prison time.

Sounds dire – until you consider why they face prison time. They have been subpoenaed to provide evidence in a criminal investigation – in particular, evidence regarding who leaked secret grand jury testimony contrary to the laws of the United States. Indeed, these reporters were the recipients of that information, presumably from the criminal or criminals who did the leaking. They have evidence of criminal activity, and like any other citizen have been called to supply evidence in the course of a criminal investigation.

Except they have refused to testify. If this were you or I, we would be hauled off to jail on charges of contempt of court until such time as we testified. These two reporters, on the other hand, remain at liberty while defying the subpoena power of a court and a grand jury while they appeal their contempt citations to a higher court. They want a declaration that reporters, among all the professionals in the United States, have a constitutional right to defy a subpoena on the basis of freedom of the press. They want the Bill of Rights to grant them a special right, granted to no one else. What arrogance!

John Canzano wants to make this a matter of life or death for the First Amendment.

Journalism sometimes depends upon sources being able to share relevant information without fear of exposure and retribution. Reporters need to remain independent. There are times when the use of an anonymous source can have significant benefits.

Reporters are not above the law. And editors go to great lengths to restrict the use of anonymous sources, including weighing the public's need to know. In this case, the reporters reported relevant information that was presented to them. And for that, they've become the focus of prosecutors.

T his isn't a matter of national security. A child's life is not in danger. We're talking about stories relating to a performance-enhancing drug scandal -- important coverage that resulted in sweeping changes in sport. Federal prosecutors, frustrated and at a dead end in trying to root out the leak, decided the best way to proceed is to lock up the messengers.

The only thing being stifled here is a free press, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment. If reporters are compelled to identify confidential sources, you might as well declare it dead.

As a matter of principle, most reporters will choose jail over revealing a confidential source. But time behind bars shouldn't ever be a consequence for those who have followed the rules.

There is a grand jury involved in this case, now. And it's in the hands of a court of appeals now. And lawyers have argued. And subpoenas have been issued. And the defendants are two reporters who haven't broken a law anywhere on the books.

Land of the free, we're told.

But journalists have no right to make such a promise. They are not privileged with the ability to defy laws of general applicability because they believe that “the people’s right to know” trumps the laws of the United States in cases that they consider to be relatively less important than giving protection to the illegal activity of their sources. And that this case goes to the very heart of our legal system – the ability of a grand jury to gather evidence and conduct deliberations related to the bringing of criminal charges without the content of those investigations and deliberations being made public – is certainly a matter of grave importance for the administration of justice.

For Canzano to declare that applying laws to reporters in precisely the same manner which they apply to other citizens constitutes the death knell for the First Amendment is simply absurd hyperbole. Furthermore, it indicates that John Canzano has an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

And it shows that he is a liar as well – for reporters in question have broken the law by their refusal to follow the dictates of the subpoena.

Liberty isn’t license, Mr. Canzano, and the rule of law is a bitch. Deal with it.

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Comments on A Little Journalistic Arrogance

That's a great closure! I'm going to quote it when the time comes.

Also, I copied out your quote of the day of the day to send to my Iranian immigrant friend who demonstrated at UVa when Khatami showed up. He and his fellow immigrants were shouting Farsi at Khatami, but the local rag reported that only a "small crowd of conservative students" showed up.

|| Posted by dymphna, September 13, 2006 08:09 AM ||
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