ASJA Protests Jail Threats for Reporters

October 14, 2004

ASJA Protests Jail Threats for Reporters

 

New York, October 14, 2004 – In a statement issued today, the First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) condemned the recent spate of subpoenas aimed at forcing journalists to reveal their confidential sources and renewed the organization’s support for a federal reporters’ shield law similar to those enacted in New York and other states. The text of the statement is below.

A record number of American journalists have been threatened with jail in recent months, simply for trying to do their jobs. They have been subpoenaed to federal courts and then held in contempt when they refuse to violate the traditional practice of protecting their sources. The American Society of Journalists and Authors – the preeminent national organization of independent non-fiction writers – joins with other journalism groups and news organizations in condemning these actions.

For 100 years or more, reporters have broken important news stories by promising to guard the identity of some of their sources, particularly those sources who are vulnerable to government reprisal. Yet in August of this year, a federal judge cited five reporters for contempt when they refused to identify the confidential sources for their stories on the Wen Ho Lee spying case. More recently, another federal judge subpoenaed Matt Cooper, Tim Russert and Walter Pincus for their reporting on the outing of Valerie Plame, a CIA covert agent. The latest victim is Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who looked into the Plame case but did not write anything on it. It is not known whether Robert Novak, the columnist who broke the story of Plame’s identity, has been subpoenaed. ASJA is against the coercion of any journalist by threat and subpoena, but we cannot help but wonder why Justice Thomas F. Hogan has bypassed Novak in favor of going after those reporters who did not actually write the story.

If reporters fail to protect confidential sources, then vulnerable sources will stay silent and important stories will go untold. Even when a source has malicious motives or even breaks the law, as was the case of the still-unknown source who illegally revealed a covert agent's identity, an ethical reporter must honor the promise of anonymity. In recognition of this, ASJA worked actively to promote the passage of Reporters’ Shield Laws in New York and other states, and we continue to support the passage of a similar law on the federal level. Until that happens, we urge federal judges and prosecutors to remember their own Justice Department internal guidelines on this issue. Written in 1980, the introduction to those guidelines reads as follows:

"Because freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news, the prosecutorial power of the government should not be used in such a way that it impairs a reporter’s responsibility to cover as broadly as possible controversial public issues."

Claire Safran
Chair, First Amendment Committee

  • A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God.
    – Sidney Sheldon
  • A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.
    – Kenneth Tynan
  • A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self–addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor.
    – Ring Lardner
  • A young musician plays scales in his room and only bores his family. A beginning writer, on the other hand, sometimes has the misfortune of getting into print.
    – Marguerite Yourcenar
  • All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary – it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.
    – Somerset Maugham
  • Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.
    – Christopher Hampton
  • Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.
    – Lawrence Kasdan
  • Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.
    –Wilson Mizner
  • Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
    – Flannery O'Connor
  • I just wrote a book, but don't go out and buy it yet, because I don't think it's finished yet.
    – Lawrence Welk
  • I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
    – Douglas Adams
  • I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done.
    – Stephen Wright
  • It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous.
    – Robert Benchley
  • It's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.
    – Andrew Jackson
  • Most writers can write books faster than publishers can write checks.
    – Richard Curtis
  • No fathers or mothers think their own children ugly; and this self–deceit is yet stronger with respect to the offspring of the mind.
    – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  • There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
    –Somerset Maugham
  • Writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It's a wonder that most of them don't.
    – Stephen King
  • Writing a novel is like spelunking. You kind of create the right path for yourself. But, boy, are there so many points at which you think, absolutely, I'm going down the wrong hole here.
    – Chang–rae Lee
  • Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.
    –Samuel Johnson