Judith Miller writes in the WSJ about the case of the former USA Today reporter who wrote about “a person of interest” in the Anthrax case. The judge in the case is threatening to fine the reporter $5,000 per day if she doesn’t reveal her anonymous sources:
I share Judge Walton’s desire for justice for Dr. Hatfill, whose life is in ruins due to official and leaked statements about him that have not been substantiated. But why should Ms. Locy and independent journalism pay the price for former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s reckless statement in 2002 that Dr. Hatfill was a ‘person of interest’ in the anthrax inquiry? As Ms. Locy reported at the time, this was a non-legal category Mr. Ashcroft apparently invoked to imply progress in an investigation that was even then all but stalled.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that if Judge Walton fines Ms. Locy for refusing to identify sources who had nothing to do with Dr. Hatfill’s dire predicament, ‘it will be very risky for future journalists to write anything about a suspect who has not already been arrested and indicted.’
There is a remedy. Last fall, the House of Representatives approved, by a veto-proof majority, a bill that would protect the identity of confidential sources — unless the information is needed to prevent terrorism, imminent death or significant bodily harm, or involves certain trade secrets, health or financial information, or classified information whose release would cause ‘significant harm.’ None of these exceptions would apply in Mr. Hatfill’s case.
The Senate version of the bill would compel a reporter to identify a source in a civil lawsuit like Dr. Hatfill’s only if the testimony or information being sought is “essential to the resolution of the matter.” Since several sources whom journalists relied on have already come forth, and since Mr. Ashcroft is basically responsible for this mess, Dr. Hatfill’s case can be resolved without Ms. Locy’s information, or her insolvency. I urge the Senate to act now.
I’m not sure this is the right solution. Maybe journalists should just quit printing so much information from anonymous sources. The result may be an uptick in credibility.
Indeed, USA Today reduced the use of anonymous sources by 75 percent in 2005 following the Jack Kelley scandal, in which their star reporter admitted to fabricated dozens of quotes from anonymous sources. A Pew study at the time found that 52 percent of those polled thought that the use of anonymous sources was “too risky” and could lead to faulty reporting. Maybe the respondents are on to something.
This bill would essentially legalize a questionable reporting practice. Given the state of media credibility, that’s not the direction we should be traveling.