Going to jail to protect a source, whether for a weekend or several months, comes with a heavy price for journalists — and the unpleasantness of the experience can last for years.
At the largest gathering to date of journalists jailed in the U.S. for refusing to testify, nine reporters spoke on June 1 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., about their experiences and the importance of enacting a federal shield law. The organizer, Brian Karem, the executive editor of the Sentinel Newspapers in Maryland, was himself jailed four times for protecting a confidential source. The other panelists, including former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Texas author Vanessa Leggett, were imprisoned for a variety of journalistic practices, including refusing to turn over information on a jailhouse interview and refusing to testify before a grand jury about interviews with a local official accused of misspending.
The journalists took turns giving sobering accounts of their time behind bars and the actions that had landed them there.
“It was not fun. No one should have to go through what anybody up here went through in order to disseminate information to the public,” Karem said, adding that he hoped they would all serve as examples for young reporters.
The humiliating, dangerous, and life-disrupting experiences they went through, from strip searches to jail fights, truly tested the panelists, they said, undermining claims that journalists who refuse to testify and are imprisoned do it for the glory and to further their careers.
“Jail isn’t a nice place, even when they treat you well. I’m very grateful I stayed in this profession, but that’s a hell of a price to pay,” said Libby Averyt, who was jailed for a weekend when she declined to hand over unpublished information on a jailhouse interview.
Brad Stone had to leave the Detroit area because he found it too difficult to do investigative work there following the publicity surrounding his imprisonment. Lisa Abraham continued reporting from jail, but had to mop floors in order to get the pay phone turned on for the day. When the other inmates dawdled, she mopped all the floors herself in order to make a deadline.
Miller spent 85 days in jail in 2005 to protect the identity of her confidential sources in the Valerie Plame affair. During her time in jail, she lost 30 pounds, made lipstick from red M&Ms, and traded a coveted apple for the opportunity to deliver laundry to fellow prisoner Zacarias Moussaoui, whom she wanted to ask about his involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks. She left jail convinced of the need for a federal media shield law and for more solidarity among all reporters.
“If you walk like a duck, quack like a duck, and write or broadcast like a duck, you’re a duck,” she quipped, in response to questions of how broadly the privilege should be applied.
The panelists agreed that more should be done to bring journalists together in support of a national shield law that protects all those who gather information to report to the public, so that they do not become tools of law enforcement by having to testify or turn over materials.
“This is a small club, no one asked to be a member, and we don’t want any more members,” Karem said.