Skip to content

Beating the drums

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. Every summer, the Reporters Committee hires…

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

Every summer, the Reporters Committee hires journalism and law school students to write for our publications and compile our annual update of open-government legislation in the states. We send them to court arguments and congressional hearings, and we plan seminars and social events so that they can have the full experience of being a Washington intern.

Our interns have gone on to land jobs in newsrooms, law firms and big media companies. One even clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court justice. This year's crop of interns had an experience unparalleled in our history. As one of them said during our good-bye lunch and review session of summer highlights: "I never thought I'd sit in a courtroom and watch marshals handcuff a reporter and take her to jail."

Watching Judith Miller ordered to jail was an experience I had hoped we'd shield them from. But I can't say I was surprised it happened. The atmosphere in the courts these days toward reporters who protect their sources is poisonous.

In the weeks before Miller was sent to jail on July 6, any number of reporters from around the country looked skeptical when I claimed these are difficult days for the reporter's privilege. "She won't really go to jail," they asserted. "Something will happen to keep her out."

Judy reminded me last week when I visited her at the detention center in Alexandria, Va., how difficult it has been to impress upon America's journalists that we're in a crisis. "You and I both knew a year ago that this is how it was going to end up. I think we were the only ones who knew that," she said.

When sending her to jail in July, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan said he believed time in jail might persuade Judy to testify before the grand jury about her confidential sources in the so-called Valerie Plame matter. During my visit, she did not seem like a woman who would change her mind. Judy Miller has a steel backbone, and that's one of the reasons so many journalists are willing to fight for a statutory federal reporter's privilege.

So the drum beating continues. We warn. We write. We worry.

The media missed an opportunity to get federal shield law legislation passed immediately after the Branzburg v. Hayes decision was released in 1972. Disagreements between various media factions doomed the bill back then. These days, led by the Newspaper Associated of America, we are working together to support shield law bills introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Although the Reporters Committee is not allowed to lobby under the IRS Code, we can provide educational materials to lobbyists and lawmakers. You can view some of these efforts on our Web site at:

In May, the Reporters Committee celebrated its 35th Anniversary with a gala celebration in New York that honored prominent journalists and noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. Our timing was perfect: Rhode Island TV reporter Jim Taricani had just been released from home confinement and Judy Miller and Matt Cooper had not yet exhausted their appeals. All three were on stage together to introduce Abrams. You can view pictures of the gala on pages 16-17.

While the gala was a special reminder of the need to protect the public's right to know, we were disappointed that two steering committee members were not able to join us due to their battles with cancer. Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings attended our 30th Anniversary party. This year, they were too sick. Sadly, Gene and Peter died over the summer. Both were enthusiastic supporters of the Reporters Committee (see obituaries pages 14-15) and we will miss them.