Freedom of the Press

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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore reflects on journalistic confidentiality and what it has to do with freedom of the press.

(Dunsmore) In 1977 a group of neo-nazis tried to stage a march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. The 70,000 residents of Skokie, more than half of whom were Jewish, fought a desperate year-long legal battle to keep these thugs from desecrating their town. In the end, the town lost the legal battle, although for other reasons, the Skokie march never took place.

The Skokie story comes to mind because it represents one of those moral dilemmas we occasionally face when a fundamental freedom issue is at stake. In the case of Skokie, the issue was Freedom of Speech. However despicable the Nazis were, the courts ruled that as long as they complied with reasonable local ordinances and were non-violent, they had the right to march.

I feel a somewhat similar dilemma over the Freedom of the Press issue that arises in the case of conservative columnist Robert Novak. A year ago, Novak, quoting senior administration officials, disclosed the identity of an under-cover CIA officer. For decades, Novak has been the darling of Washington hard liners. In this case, he was doing the hatchet work for those in the Bush administration who were angry with the covert agent’s husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had just written that President Bush had used discredited intelligence when he claimed that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa.

However, revealing an agent’s identity is a felony, so for months there’s been a criminal investigation as to who leaked the agent’s name to Novak. A grand jury has subpoenaed several reporters including Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine who had published a story similar to Novaks. Cooper has refused to reveal his sources and a Federal District judge has ordered that he be jailed and that Time Magazine pay a fine of $1000 a day. Both penalties are suspended while the decision is appealed.

Although doctors and lawyers have a traditional privilege of confidentiality with their patients or clients, journalists have no such right. A 1972 Supreme Court decision did recognize that a reporter’s work is entitled to a degree of protection under the constitution. But if the government decides the reporter has information central to a criminal case that cannot be obtained any other way, then it can compel the reporter to testify or go to jail

While I find neither Novak nor his sources sympathetic – that doesn’t change the principle at stake. If we wish to have a functioning democracy- we need a free press. And a free press, in order to function effectively, must be able to keep its sources confidential. As a reporter in Washington and abroad for more than thirty years, I know I would not have been nearly as productive if I had
not had sources who trusted me to keep their identities secret. That is true for all good reporters. So allowing journalists to keep their sources confidential, is not a privilege for the news media. It is a protection a free society needs to remain free.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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