If I were Jim Taricani, I would decorate my prison cell with my four Emmys. The award-winning journalist has been convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to identify a source. His sentence – to be announced in a few weeks – could be up to six months in jail.
Taricani is an investigative reporter for an NBC affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island. Three years ago, he obtained and broadcast a tape of a city official accepting a $1,000 cash bribe from an undercover FBI agent. The resulting investigation led to the arrest of the city official and the mayor of Providence, both of whom are serving five-year sentences for racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering and mail fraud. The illegality is not the airing of the tape, but the violation of a court order that prohibited the release of tapes relating to the case.
According to The New York Times, “three different U.S. federal judges, each appointed by President Ronald Reagan, have found a total of eight journalists in contempt of court for refusing to reveal confidential sources” in the last few months.
I agree that journalists should reveal their sources, yet there are exceptions.
Depending on the facts of the case, the exposure can jeopardize the source’s career if he or she is directly related to the subject in question. In Tarconi’s case, the source is likely another city official.
Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that protect the confidentiality of sources in state cases, but there is no federal law currently written. Therefore, overzealous federal judges are free to impose arbitrary sentences on journalists. Taricani was fined $1,000 per day for over two months. That, combined with an impending sentence of up to six months, is too extreme. People who commit misdemeanors – theft, prostitution, simple assault and vandalism – often have sentences that are less than six months.
The judge says Taricani’s guilt is not due to an unknown source, but rather that he “willfully” violated the order of the court. If journalists are not above the law, neither are lawyers. Before the tape was aired on TV, the lead prosecutor took it home and showed it to some of his friends. He “willfully” violated the same court order as Taricani and received a minor punishment in comparison: a $500 fine and a 30-day suspension. If guilt is based on whether or not the court order was violated, as the judge says, then both men should have received the same punishment for the same crime. Not surprisingly, NBC Nightly News was the only media outlet that reported this information. NBC, Taricani’s employer, has supported him throughout the trial.
Meanwhile, Democratic senator Christopher Dodd is introducing a bill that protects sources, including journalists’ notebooks and photographs, with a few exceptions. “The bill says a court could force disclosure of news in cases in which it is critical to a legal issue, the information cannot be obtained anywhere else and an overriding public interest exists in the disclosure,” notes the Associated Press. If passed, the mandate would be a piece of federal legislation that is long overdue.
The media is often the scapegoat for peoples’ faults with society and each other. Many believe the media has too much freedom – as proven by the several TV and radio censorships this year – and that journalists are not above the law. Journalists are stuck in a lose-lose scenario. We are blamed for not doing enough investigative journalism and for not exposing news, which affects the average American. Yet, when an investigative reporter does his job, some are outraged because the reporter is concealing the identity of a source. It simply isn’t enough that truth was exposed and the public benefited from the reporting.
Taricani, who called the verdict “an assault on journalistic freedom,” will receive no more than a six-month sentence due to health concerns. While the ruling is considerate on behalf of the judge, it is worrisome to other journalists who could be sentenced to longer terms if they are healthy enough to deal with a year or so of jail. With that in mind, a double quarter-pounder with cheese sounds good right about now. And I’ll take fries with that.
Stephanie Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.