Thursday, August 11, 2005

A fight destined to be lost

Mark Jurkowitz, writing in the Boston Phoenix, argues that the Wen Ho Lee case, currently wending its way through the courts, and the Steven Hatfill case, also in the courts, pose a far more serious threat to journalistic freedom than does the Plamegate/Rovegate case which gets all the ink.

Lee was the former nuclear scientist who was suspected of espionage and Hatfill the government scientist suspected of mailing anthrax. Both men have since been exonerated but their reputations are in shreds. Both were crucified in the press and both have sued the government for violating their privacy under the Privacy Act. Lee exhausted all avenues against specific government agencies and therefore sued to have the reporters who covered the case and wrote the most damaging stories in an effort to force them to reveal their sources. Federal courts have thus far ruled in Lee's favor and 4 reporters are under contempt-of-court citations, with accompanying fines of $500 per day, for refusing to reveal those secret sources. Hatfill has not yet exhausted all of his remedies, but his case is another shoe waiting to drop on journalists.

The journalists' lawyers are hoping to get a rehearing at the Appeals Court level and, failing that, its on to the Supreme Court. One could debate this issue from now until the cows come home, but one fact stands out starkly from all of the rhetoric. Laws were broken and the press aided and abetted the illegal activity. Of secondary importance is the fact that the press got the stories wrong from the outset. In the Lee case, the judge at his trial apologized for the government's actions, President Clinton apologized for the government's actions, and the New York Times printed a half page mea culpa apologizing for the press's actions.

Now read this from Lee Levine, the lawyer for two of the reporters;
". . . there's an additional concern that the interest of a private litigant would be held to be more important than the journalist's or source's [right to confidentiality]."
Let me point out, again, there is no right to journalist's or source's confidentiality under federal law. So called "shield laws" do exist in most states, but there is no federal shield law. Doesn't exist and it never has. If the all powerful MSM wants a shield law, then the US Congress is the place to pursue that. Barring a shield law enacted in the Congress and somehow made retroactive, the MSM is destined to lose this fight.

And of secondary, but still of extreme importance, read this statement from Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota;
"It is not the role of the courts ... or private litigants to impose standards on the press by means of a coercive tactic like this."
Then whose role is it? Who imposes standards on the press? The press, itself? Don't make me laugh. The press is not above the law. No government agency is above the law. No president is above the law (see Nixon - Watergate). The Congress is not above the law (see Torreceli, Traficant). When the press abuses its position of power to do serious damage to an individual, then the press has to pay the price. The old "absence of malice" saw is no longer a defense from being a party to a crime, at least not a federal crime.

The MSM has been abusing its 1st amendment rights for more than 200 years for the benefit of the bottom line and to the detriment of untold thousands of individuals and now the time has come to pay the piper.

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