Taking stand against
giving up sources
Many years ago when I was an investigative reporter instead of investigative humorist, I was sitting on a witness stand in a tiny magistrate's coatroom in federal court being given the "Colombian death stare" by two or three fairly unpleasant killers and international drug dealers sitting only a few feet away from me.
Having covered more than a hundred trials, I remember thinking that life looks a lot different from the witness stand than from the peanut gallery where reporters usually sit. I had been writing about this particular group of Colombians for several weeks, in mostly unflattering terms, recounting their various bloody criminal enterprises and such before they decided to grace Hawaii with their presence. But up to that moment, the stories and characters were all sort of hypothetical or theoretical or one of the other -eticals connected with something being more mythological than real. But here the characters were in real life, and apparently none too happy with my reportage. If eyes were tommy guns, I'd be a splatter on Magistrate Joe Gedan's wall.
The reason I was on the stand was because the lawyers for these dangerous men (and the ringleader's gorgeous dark-haired wife who wore to court black high heels with red leather flames flowing off the tips) wanted me to reveal where I had gotten all the juicy -- which is to say incriminating -- information for my articles. They were convinced that government agents had fed me the info that made their clients look bad, as if they needed any help in that department.
Government drug agents hadn't given me any information, but I just couldn't say that because, frankly, the source of the information was nobody's business but the newspaper's. I did have a nongovernmental source that gave me a little stuff, but he was more of a "Shallow Gulp" than a "Deep Throat." Most of the material simply came from public police records in California -- where these gentlemen had engaged in a sweet little reign of terror -- and was available to anyone who took the time to look it up. But some lawyers are lazy, as are some government agents, so it's easier to drag a reporter into court to attempt to force him to reveal his sources, than to do the legwork themselves.
THE EASIEST THING for me to do would have been simply to say the Drug Enforcement Agency had not given me information and that just about everything in my reports was from public records. But the Colombians' attorneys would have kept pestering me, so I took the rightful position that under the Hawaii state Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, I didn't have to reveal my source of information.
Nevertheless, every DEA agent in Hawaii was put on the stand to testify that they hadn't talked to me. Well, the head of the DEA said he had talked to me because I talked to the heads of all the federal agencies daily as part of my job. But he said he hadn't given me any of the juicy stuff that ended up in my stories.
I was put on the stand, and the defense attorneys took turns firing questions at me but my only reply was that I refused to answer on the basis of the First Amendment, while I nervously looked back and forth between the Colombians and the flame-tipped high heels.
Then, of course, the attorneys demanded I be locked up until I talked. Even though I doubted that would happen, it seemed to bring a sparkle to the Colombians' eyes because it meant we would presumably be sharing the same federal accommodations.
Magistrate Gedan denied the request to throw me in jail. Justice was served, sort of. The ringleader of the cocaine network somehow managed to escape before the trial began, leaving his lovely wife in the flame-tipped high heels and his accomplices to take the heat and go to prison.
I thought of this the other day when New York Times reporter Judith Miller was ordered to jail by a federal judge for refusing to reveal sources in a story that wasn't even published. Time magazine caved in to the judge's demand, and their reporter Matthew Cooper revealed his source (presidential adviser Karl Rove) in the CIA-related case. I think the National Enquirer would have put up a better fight than Time.
The jailing of Miller is an outrageous assault against the freedom of the press to get information by sometimes using confidential sources. It is essential that reporters are protected in these kinds of cases. We have no power of subpoena, we can't put people under oath; all we can do is use our wily charms to sometimes coax information out of people with the promise their identity will be protected. It should be used sparingly, but this kind of news gathering is necessary.
Reporters are not foot soldiers for defense attorneys or government investigators. If a little old federal magistrate in Hawaii could figure that out, you'd think the judges in Washington, D.C., would get it, too.
Charles Memminger, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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