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The free speech gestapo, on steroids

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Hard as it is for me to imagine sometimes, not every working journalist has seen the movie "All the President's Men" or even read the book.

Those who haven't somehow managed to get their inspiration elsewhere. But for those of us who have, the impression is indelible.

"All the President's Men" quite simply is the "Rocky" of reporting.

After watching the movie, those of us born with ink in our veins did not want to run swiftly through the cheering streets of Philadelphia but rather look to cultivate our own Deep Throats, to experience that moment when Jason Robards says, "Run that baby," to tell a source that if he is still on the phone in 10 seconds it will be confirmation to go with our story.

Washington Post reporters Woodward (played dead-on by Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (portrayed with equal brilliance by Dustin Hoffman) helped bring down a president and changed the news business forever, albeit in ways that have not always been positive.

The craving for a "Woodstein" moment has led to egregiously irresponsible journalism from more reporters than any of us care to remember. Unnamed sources, of critical importance to the Post's exposure of the Watergate scandal, have become in some quarters a willy-nilly staple of newsgathering.


In totality, though, we all owe an incalculable debt to those reporters who can nail down sources who will speak out about wrongdoing, and to the sources themselves who often risk severe consequences by telling their stories.

Personally, I am not a fan of unnamed sources. Sometimes, though, you need to make concessions. Sometimes, the names need to be changed to tell important stories.

Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada have told an important story, and needed to protect their sources' identities to do so. The two San Francisco Chronicle reporters wrote a book about the odious scandal surrounding steroids in baseball and its poster child, home-run king Barry Bonds.

Their reporting has led to a congressional investigation and may yet topple Bonds before he reaches the pinnacle of his pursuit, the 755 homers hit by Hank Aaron.

That is unless, of course, George W. Bush doesn't throw them in jail first.

As you may recall, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has never quite made it to the top of our president's reading list. Bush doesn't place a particularly high premium on journalistic freedom, and it's his administration's position that unless Williams and Fainaru-Wada give up their sources, they should be tossed in prison. Bush's stooges in the Justice Department believe that if reporters are actually allowed to protect their sources it could lead to leaks in this already sieve-like White House.

Fortunately, some people get it when it comes to freedom of the press.

Pennsylvania's own Arlen Specter, the Republican U.S. senator never afraid to take on his party's establishment, has come to the defense of Williams and Fainaru-Wada, taking the heretical approach that a bill he has co-sponsored establishing a shield law allowing journalists to protect their sources ought to be passed by Congress.

Joining him are stalwarts like Ted Olson, Bush's former solicitor general whose wife was killed in the airplane that flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. Bipartisan support comes from Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who introduced the bill last year with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

"One of the most vital functions of our free and independent press," Olson told the Senate Judiciary Committee recently, "is to function as a watchdog, working to uncover stories that would otherwise go untold."

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www.mediabistro.com/JeffCox

Jeff Cox is an award-winning freelance writer based near Easton, Pa. He has spent nearly 20 years in the news business, working as both a writer and an editor. His freelance work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, CNNMoney.com, (more...)
 

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