Courts turn journalists into criminals
- Tim Crews
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
An American journalist today must be prepared to go to jail.
Newspapermen from the first days of this country would be saddened, but not shocked, to see 21st-century courts stampede to corral journalists, whether with the cudgel of subpoenas or fear of subpoenas.
Oddly enough, the press ought to have seen this coming and prepared for it. Even now, with reporters from Time Magazine and the New York Times held in contempt and facing 18-month prison sentences, the response from the mainstream American press has been tepid.
Few seem to know about -- or consider their legacy -- Benjamin Franklin Bache, who was beaten at the behest of President John Adams, arrested for printing news that the government did not like and for publishing documents that showed leading Federalists were lying about the "evil schemes" of France. Read: weapons of mass destruction.
Today, while more and more journalists are subpoenaed by federal investigators in connection with the alleged retaliatory "outing" of a CIA agent married to a critic of President George W. Bush, subpoenas are being used by defense attorneys and grand juries.
A few are standing tall. But the response of many in the press is predictable: Don't make waves. Death by self-censorship.
It's not just that reporters, photographers, editors and publishers have become very cautious or timid. Many have capitulated altogether and refuse to do any journalism that requires deep probing and sources to be protected. Consider that the New York Times' Judith Miller is being questioned about sources for a story she never wrote.
There is little doubt, from the acid poured upon my newspaper for publishing a send-up of the overzealous Patriot Act, that many are quite ready to silence a free press, ostensibly for reasons of security but really for reasons of having their self-deception disturbed (my emphasis).
It has come to a time, it seems to us, that journalists worth their salt must contemplate committing civil disobedience in nearly every issue. If we report that the county is misspending money or defrauding prisoners, we are cast as disloyal. "Get on board the bus, boy, or get run over" -- that's the message from Washington and Sacramento.
Virtually everyone doing eyes-open journalism courts a subpoena and then, if worth his or her salt, courts jail, financial ruin, even loss of family.
The deep disrespect by our elected and appointed officials for the free exchange of ideas is now seen plain in the higher levels of the nation's courts. The answer is to fill the prisons with reporters, photographers, editors and publishers.
For a nation that has given lip service to the ideals of free speech and a free press and that has long excoriated the Third World for imprisoning journalists, that is where we have come.
Tim Crews is editor of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Glenn County. He spent five days in jail in 2000 for refusing to name his sources for a story he wrote about a former California Highway Patrol officer charged with stealing a gun.
Tell the truth, go to jail. Why isn't Bob Douchebag For Liberty Novak locked up or facing it? Because he pled the Fifth Amendment. It looks as though if you knowingly break the law, you can get away with it as long as you're a mouthpiece for this crooked administration, but if you simply tell the truth without breaking the law, you get in trouble. A sad state of affairs that needs to be corrected. Soon.