Subpoenas and the press
Posted by metaphorical on 27 November 2006
In today’s NY Times, the usually excellent David Carr defends the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the Balco case. Well, he doesn’t so much defend them as assume that the reporters are completely in the right and the case against them should just go away in the name of press freedom.
For anyone whose desert island subscription set doesn’t include Sports Illustrated (which would certainly describe me), the Balco case turns out to be the one that revealed the extent of steroid use in Major League Baseball.
Way down in the 8th paragraph, Carr gets around to the government’s side of it, and here’s how he does it:
government prosecutors, in the name of protecting the sanctity of the grand jury process, are still trying to throw Mr. Williams and Mr. Fainaru-Wada in jail for 18 months.
Excuse me, Mr Carr, what exactly is wrong with the idea of protecting the sanctity of the grand jury process? If a free press is one leg in the cathedra of a democratic society, isn’t the grand jury process another? (A third is the secret ballot in free and fair elections. The fourth used to be habeus corpus, maybe we’ll get that back and democracy won’t teeter-totter so much as it does on only three legs.)
Long before the 8th paragraph, Carr paints a most sympathetic portrait of the the defense attorney, Eve Burton, general counsel at the Hearst Corporation (parent company to the Chronicle), who only wanted to be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for “for 10 bachelor farmers in the area, aged 84 and up” in upstate New York (no, I’m not making this up. What’s the smiley character for ‘world’s smallest violin’?).
This is the single biggest case I have ever been involved in,” [Burton] added. “In terms of the public’s right to know what the government does and doesn’t do, it is huge.
Give me a break, Ms Burton. Is major league baseball so important that we couldn’t wait until the grand jury had finished its investigations? Could anything be less important?
In the last 18 months, [Burton] says, her company has received 80 newsgathering subpoenas, for broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines. “But that was after the Judy Miller case,” she said, mentioning the case in which the former New York Times reporter went to jail to protect a source.
Maybe that’s because the Miller case was an awful one to hang the issue of the confidentiality of sources on. She was a bad reporter who did bad reporting, and her editors did a bad job of supervising her, and now all reporters are suffering the consequences.
You know what Mr Carr? Maybe the Chronicle and the Hearst Corporation have it right after all. I sure don’t know. But is this the case you want to rest the sanctity of source confidentiality on? The Judith Miller case was a bad one, and this is another bad one. And bad cases make bad law.