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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Who needs a shield law

Late last week Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson signed a bill which creates a reporter's shield law designed to protect anonymous sources.
The Kansas Legislature has been working on this bill since 2002 and final impetus for the law was given by the case of Claire O'Brien, formerly of the Dodge City Daily Globe.
O'Brien was working on a story about a man, Samuel Bonilla, who was accused of murdering one man and of trying to kill another.
A local bail bondsman, Rebecca Escalante came to O'Brien and told her she would have been happy to bail Bonilla out, but that she felt his life would be in danger, a source who requested to remain anonymous also told O'Brien the same thing adding that Tanner Brunson, the man who was wounded in the shooting, has a "base of support that is well-known for its anti-Hispanic beliefs."
This is of course possible, I'm a native of Dodge City and the western Kansas town is roughly 50 percent hispanic. There are long-standing racial tensions in Dodge between hispanics and whites which may very well have played a factor in this case.
So far so good.
Enter Ford County Attorney Terry Malone, who read the story and proceeded to subpoena O'Brien to reveal the source.
O'Brien refused and a court battle that went all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court ensued.
She was ordered to appear at an inquisition, the Kansas equivalent of a grand jury, and testify. She failed to appear and was charged with contempt.
The anonymous source eventually came forth on his own, and Bonilla pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
Now we have limited protections in Kansas law to keep journalists from being forced to reveal their sources.
I'm a bit conflicted on this.
The general theory is that sources will not come forward to reveal wrong doing by government if they know their names will be revealed. Likewise sources whose life may be put in danger by the revelation of their name also will not talk to reporters.
So far as it goes that's true enough.
But, as always, there's a catch.
Journalists have gotten entirely too fond of the anonymous source.
In Washington “sources close to the administration” or “sources within the Pentagon” or whatever institution you want to name, are regularly quoted.
These “leaks” are often deliberate by administration officials who are using the media as their mouth piece – not legitimate whistle blowers who need the protection of anonymity.
I am of course, that rara avis, the conservative journalist.
But my first journalism instructor, Stacy Sparks, was and probably still is, very much a liberal. I still have great respect for Stacy, or “Sparky” as we sometimes called her, mostly behind her back.
Stacy taught me that ethically, anonymous sources were only to be used in extreme circumstances and reporters should never grant anonymity unless we were ready and willing to go to jail to protect that source.
This new law also creates a privilege for reporters on the level of doctors and lawyers. I have issues with this as well – we are neither – and this takes a group of people who, at the upper levels of the profession, tend to regard themselves as some sort of elite and gives them more reason to look at themselves as such.
Well I hate to tell the Keith Olbermann's of the world this, but we're not.
Not that this is not a highly technical profession requiring a very specialized skill set – it is and does.
Most reporters are guys (and gals) just like me – overworked and underpaid professionals who do this job not for the pay, or the acclimation, but because we love it and we have a real belief that what we do is important.
I, for one, am afraid these shield laws do nothing but encourage the ivory tower mentality I've seen infect too many of my peers over the years.
We must be more careful about who and when we grant anonymity. I believe our credibility, which is never high, is eroded even further when we allow ourselves to be used as mouthpieces for “anonymous” sources which anyone with a brain knows are highly placed officials with orders to “leak” the information in order to give plausible deniability to their principals.
Stacy taught me that our job was to be a watchdog of government, regardless of who was in office and irrespective of our political persuasion – to find the facts, follow them wherever they lead, report them fairly and accept the consequences, knowing that this is a profession where we will never be loved and will often be blamed for reporting the facts others would rather were not known.
I don't need a law to protect me while I do it.
All IMHO of course.

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