Sunday, March 23, 2008

Using a shield where it is not warranted

This morning's Inky features a few interesting editorials, but the one that has me yelling back at my computer is Mark Bowden's commentary on the need for strong shield laws to protect both the public and the media. I agree that the shield law is necessary and appropriate but am also aware that there are times these laws have been (and could very well be) a means to be used as a propaganda tool for the government, administration officials, political party, or to slander/libel a private citizen without being held accountable. In some cases, reporters may be willing participants who use the shield to hide their lack of integrity, and in some they may have been duped into being tools. The example Bowden uses to make his case is closer to the former as he writes he hopes that former Philadelphia Daily News staff writer, Toni Loci, wins an appeal to a judgment require she name her sources and pay $5,000/day until she complies with the ruling [emphasis added]
Loci is facing financial ruin for defying U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who is presiding over a civil lawsuit against the government by Steven Hatfill, the man Attorney General John Ashcroft named as a "person of interest" in the still-open anthrax-mailing case of 2001. The anthrax letters killed five people and sickened 17, sending the nation into a panic over a possible terrorist chemical attack.

The anthrax mailer has not been caught. Hatfill, a virologist and biomedical research scientist, has always asserted his innocence and has never been charged with the crime, but his reputation and career have been destroyed. FBI and Justice Department officials repeatedly identified him off the record to newspaper reporters as the prime suspect. One of those reporters was Loci. In two stories she wrote for USA Today in 2003 naming Hatfill as the primary suspect, she mentioned first four unidentified law-enforcement sources, and then three. Walton wants to know who they were.
Now, I'm not a journalist but were I to provide information "off the record" I would assume that the information would be used as a lead to obtain additional information or mentally filed, but I would not expect to find the information I provided off the record to be reported with myself indicated as an unnamed source. If I wanted a reporter to print the information I provided but absolutely needed my identity to remain confidential, I would not be making my statement off the record - I would reveal the information only if I could be assured it was unattributable (i.e., anonymous source).

Bowden acknowledges that Hatfill's career and reputation have been ruined and he has a right to know who provided Loci and any other reporter with the information that was used to ruin him. He also notes that, in this case
the use of unnamed sources in her stories was unnecessary and had the effect of both further staining Hatfill's reputation and inviting her current troubles. Neither of the stories she wrote was remarkable or exclusive.
Loci's sources made two mistakes in one: they provided information off the record to an unreliable reporter. They should have chosen what they said and to whom they said it more carefully. Additionally, the moment they saw the information they provided off the record in print they should have started the damage control necessary to prepare them for the inevitable revelation of their role in her story. As such, any assertion that she ought not be held responsible for any part of the damage done to Hatfill or that she should not have to out her sources just doesn't hold sway. In this case, the misuse/abuse of the shield law is the threat to a free press, forcing Loci to reveal her sources is not.


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