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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Journalistic solidarity

I feel spoiled. I sit in my office week in and week out researching, reporting, pitching, writing and editing stories about which I’m passionate. My beat is not foreign affairs, courts or cops, government or war.

No, I write about the softer subjects – books, authors, religion, arts, people and health. But I do so in relative security that what I’m doing isn’t rocking anybody’s boat, that it’s the sugar found in your morning newspaper.

And that’s why this morning I stand in awe of the courage and conviction of Judith Miller, the latest in a line of journalists jailed for protecting a source. Miller sits in a detention center outside of Washington, D.C., because she won’t reveal a confidential source who leaked the identity of a CIA operative to her to a federal grand jury in a story she never wrote.

"Your Honor," she said, "in this case I cannot break my word just to stay out of jail. The right of civil disobedience based on personal conscience is fundamental to our system and honored throughout our history."

She noted that she had covered the war in Iraq, and had lived and worked all over the world.

"The freest and fairest societies are not only those with independent judiciaries," she said, "but those with an independent press that works every day to keep government accountable by publishing what the government might not want the public to know."

I’m a First Amendment absolutist, meaning I believe it to be for everyone, not just journalists. I’d like to think the prospect of being jailed would never happen to me. And I’d like to think that given the same set of circumstances as Miller that I would be just as strong in my convictions, bravely facing prison to stand up for what I believe.

But then I looked in on my sleeping babes this morning and wondered if I would have the strength to survive not seeing them for up to six months. I don’t know and I sincerely hope I’m never tested as such.

What is frightening is how little concern the larger public has for such violations of our free society. Outside of the handful of journalist friends with whom I’ve corresponded in the past few days, no one is proclaiming the great injustice that has befallen Miller.

I’m afraid they know not what is at stake. Despite the public’s disregard for the fate of what they may see as an obstinate reporter and large media organization, the fight is really about our country's basic freedoms and the public's right to know.

In a statement, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, said Ms. Miller had followed her conscience, with the paper's support. "There are times when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience," Mr. Sulzberger said. "I sincerely hope that now Congress will move forward on federal shield legislation so that other journalists will not have to face imprisonment for doing their jobs."

How many others face prison for doing their jobs? For working for the greater good of society? For exposing corruption? The answer is not many. But it’s something that with increasing frequency is befalling journalistic colleagues.

Jim Taricani, of WJAR-TV, Providence spent six months in house arrest in 2004 for refusing to reveal who gave him an FBI videotape that was evidence in an investigation of government corruption.

Six others since 1990 have shared similar fates. This string began in 1978 with Myron Farber, the New York Times reporter who refused to submit news files to a judge presiding over a surgeon’s murder trial. He spent 40 days in jail.

But of all the incidents, the case of Vanessa Leggett of Houston is most chilling. In 2001, this freelance writer spent 168 days in jail for refusing to surrender research for a book about a federal murder-for-hire case. And now another woman, Judith Miller, stands to spend more than 100 days in jail until the grand jury expires on Oct. 28.

So when I become complacent about what I do, I pause to remember that it isn't just reporters at large media organizations whose work is subject to such charges. It is also the independents among us. Leggett, whom I saw speak in Fort Worth, Texas after she was released, did what many before her had not been forced to do. She spent half a year of her young life behind bars without the benefit of a larger media organization working on her behalf.

She stood her ground on behalf of freelancers and journalists everywhere. The government maintained that she was not a professional journalist, but larger media organizations across the country knew better, and knew the consequences of allowing the federal government to define who is and who is not a journalist.

A New York Times editorial proclaimed: "Integral to our freedom of the press is the notion that the First Amendment protects those who are engaged in journalism, not those certified as journalists by the government. If the government refuses to recognize a fledgling freelancer as a real journalist, it may next decree that someone who works for a small newspaper also fails to make the grade."

Society of Professional Journalists past president Ray Marcano said in a 2001 statement that freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should apply to all individuals, not simply to a full-time staff member of a print or broadcast media entity. Individuals should be free to gather and report without fear of becoming an arm of the government.

"Leggett's arrest and jailing smacks of gestapo tactics in a society in which journalists and other writers perform their duties without fear of government interference," said Marcano, an assistant managing editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "She has been unjustly jailed because she doesn't want to hand over her unpublished materials. She also was jailed by an unnamed judge during a closed proceeding, ensuring no one knows how the judge concluded she should be jailed. She should be released immediately."

Of course she was not released immediately. Freelancers are worried. They don’t have the Newspaper Guild behind them. They don’t have the high-priced media lawyers retained by their employers to file motions on their behalf. But, as Leggett’s case proved, they are just as susceptible to such contempt charges as Judith Miller.

By now, Judith Miller has spent her first night in jail, and from all accounts the gravity of the situation has sunk in. Speaking from the jail last night she said:

"They put shackles on my hands and my feet," she said. "They put you in the back of this car. I passed the Capitol and all the office buildings I used to cover. And I thought, 'My God, how did it come to this?' "

"She doesn't want to be a martyr,"
(Miller’s husband) Mr. (Jason) Epstein said. "She just doesn't want to reveal her sources."

Back on Aug. 31, 2001, Austin Chronicle reporter Michael Ventura penned this passionate open letter to Vanessa Leggett. Clearly the members of the press, both independent and employed, must stand together on this issue. We’ve had our battles in the past, but we’re all working toward the same end — a free press, which is vital to a free society. Since I feel the same as Ventura about both Leggett and Miller, I’ll let him have the last word.

I've professed journalism -- the keeping of the record of my day, in my own way -- for 27 years. I've had death threats, swastikas painted on my car, that sort of thing ... but I've never been tested as you're being tested. With every all-too-human mistake and contradiction I could manage, I've tried to walk my talk ... but I've never been called to do what you're doing.

So I don't consider you a novice -- as even the sympathetic reports call you. In making your stand, you're way ahead of where most of us have been. I'm writing this letter to offer my gratitude and my solidarity. The reason all those high-flyin' news organizations are getting behind you is that you've reminded them of who they are and what they're for. And reminded me.

Don't let any bastards ever let you feel you're not the real deal.

Your colleague in the profession.

1 comment:

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Wendy,

If only Doug Clifton felt that passionately on the issue.


Jeff Hess